Obamacare rollout shockingly rough [Commentary]

The disastrous Affordable Care Act rollout is shocking compared with the quick implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

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The Obama Administration's rollout of the Affordable Care Act was a disaster.

The policy did not anticipate how to deal with Americans who were unceremoniously dumped from their non-employer-based health insurance plans by private insurers trying to comply with ACA's requirements. The healthcare.gov website was — and still is — hamstrung by technical glitches and bogged down by traffic; this week it was reported that the site is riddled with informational errors about applicants, their families and their coverage. Worst of all is the program's low demand: The number of Americans who signed up for coverage thus far remains well below what may be, in hindsight, too-ambitious participation targets set by the administration.

President Barack Obama has apologized — repeatedly, in fact — for his administration's errors of both commission and omission. While Mr. Obama deserves credit for accepting blame and issuing apologies (something his predecessor, during his apparently perfect presidency, never had the guts to do), apologies won't correct the problems with Mr. Obama's signature domestic policy.

But what's shocking to those who have followed closely this administration's politics and policies is how Obamacare could be handled so poorly given how deftly and proficiently Barack Obama and his advisers managed the implementation of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Known informally as "the stimulus," ARRA was signed into law by the president less than a month into his presidency. That's right: A two-year, $800 billion, three-pronged bill was conceived, drafted and marshaled through Congress while Obama officials were still trying to locate the nearest restrooms in the White House and the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

As chronicled in fascinating detail by Michael Grunwald in his book "The New New Deal," the stimulus is this president's great and overlooked policy triumph. ARRA's purpose was to inject capital into the economic bloodstream as quickly and effectively as possible. To do that, the administration made sure that the tax cuts, aid to state governments and funding for shovel-ready projects and other government investments were timely, targeted and temporary.

The president tasked Vice President Joe Biden and several top-notch administrators with ARRA's implementation. They created stringent standards and protocols for applying for ARRA monies and used thousands of technical experts to judge the merits of applicants. For example, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu recruited 4,500 relevant experts to peer review every single application for clean energy, alternative fuel, advanced battery and similar venture capital grants.

The day ARRA passed, a 62-page, single-spaced implementation memo was circulated to every relevant federal agency — and every agency had to report on every program, every week. All of this information and every dollar spent was recorded online by ARRA's well-functioning, searchable website.

Examples of the maniacally detail-oriented implementation of ARRA in Mr. Grunwald's book are too numerous to recount here, but consider this: Within weeks of ARRA's passage, former Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney assembled a team of "investigators from the worlds of finance and intelligence [and] law enforcement" who, armed with advanced software, would monitor every ARRA project for potential fraud. And out of nearly $800 billion spent they discovered only $7.2 million in fraud, or 0.001 percent.

Keep in mind that all of this was accomplished in the opening months of an administration that was simultaneously crafting an auto bailout, passing the Lily Ledbetter equal pay act, formulating plans to bring American troops home from Iraq, and hatching Wall Street regulatory reforms.

To be fair, ACA is a bigger, more complex and permanent law than ARRA, and some of Obamacare provisions (e.g, extending parents' coverage of their children through age 26) took effect immediately and without complication. But the uncomfortable fact is that this administration had more than three years to prepare for the implementation of ACA's key policy innovation: the state health care exchanges and their attendant websites.

Mr. Obama has a keen eye for technically proficient, visionary managers: His 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign teams revolutionized the use of sophisticated software, algorithmic voter targeting programs and social media-based outreach. Why such technical expertise and rigorous detail was absent from Obamacare's implementation will remain one of the enduring — and embarrassing — mysteries of this presidency.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.


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