The weird politics of the messed up Obamacare website

There may be reasons why the Obamacare website functions poorly but there are no excuses.

An administration that put so much on the line to pass the Affordable Care Act (and then defended it in the Supreme Court and won a bruising presidential campaign) should have gotten it right.

It’s true that the state-run exchanges are running better than the federal one. But when more states than predicted decided to use the federal exchange, the web development task not only got harder, but more critical.

But the politics of the website have turned Obamacare into a technical issue with a technical fix.

Both Democrats and Republicans have focused on problems with the website working.

This is a technical problem, not a problem with the program itself.

And technical problems can and will get fixed.

After all, that’s what happened when President George W. Bush’s prescription drug policy was first implemented.

As Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services recounted:

When the system started running, glitches caused delays. In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2006, an HHS colleague visited a few pharmacies to see how Part D was working.

“How many Part D prescriptions have you been able to fill?” my colleague asked a busy pharmacist in Front Royal, Va. The pharmacist answered, “None.” [source]

Focusing on the website now means that Obamacare is essentially accepted as a part of the policy landscape.

Getting it fixed is necessary but most essential a month or so before the end of the year.

Now the Obama administration says the website will be fixed by the end of November.

If so, people will be able to get insurance for 2014. And they still will have until March to avoid paying a penalty by buying insurance.

If the administration can keep to its deadline, enrollment in the program probably won’t suffer. 

That’s because experience in Massachusetts suggests that most people wait to sign up.

Here’s a chart showing the timing of sign-ups for Romneycare.

Source: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic

The overwhelming number of people signed up right before they would have had to pay a penalty.

Supporters and opponents of the law have different incentives to focus on the website’s problems.

Obamacare’s supporters want it fixed because they want people to get insurance easily. Moreover, they realize that a poorly functioning system will affect who signs up. Sicker people will do so, but not as many healthy people as are needed to hold down premiums. A successful program is good for them politically and also policy-wise.

But the law’s opponents have focused on the website because it fits with their general opposition to all things Obamacare. They’d prefer no Obamacare at all and would benefit politically if the program is deemed a failure. Yet they’re now highlighting a fixable issue.

After the technical problems with the website get fixed, they will be quickly forgotten.

To be sure, other elements of the law will need to be fixed. That’s the norm with every new, big policy.

But focusing on fixing these marks a technocratic commitment to make changes that make Obamacare work better.

Maybe not in 2014, but down the road both Democrats and Republicans very well will campaign on their efforts to improve the Affordable Care Act. In emphasizing technical problems with the website, the GOP has taken its first step down that path.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.