It has been a rough few weeks for Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services tasked with the implementation of Obamacare. Within days of the launch of the much anticipated health insurance exchanges, millions of Americans, frustrated by frozen web pages, broken processes and unmanageable bottlenecks, are realizing that Obamacare is not ready for prime-time. The public and the press are calling for blood, with the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas, going so far as saying “if Apple launched a major new product that functioned as badly as Obamacare’s online insurance marketplace, the tech world would be arguing for [CEO] Tim Cook’s head.”
For now, President Obama is standing by Sebelius, partly because replacing her would be a contentious affair in the United States Senate, but also because it would be difficult to find a replacement. Who in their right mind would want the job?
It turns out that reorganizing nearly one-fifth of the largest economy in the history of mankind is a lot more difficult than anyone, at least in the Obama administration, thought it would be. Unfortunately for the country, this administration’s colossal oversimplification of the infinitely complex health care insurance industry has left millions of Americans, who once had employer-sponsored health insurance, in an Alice-in-Wonderland-limbo, stuck, trying to squeeze through an impossibly small door, unable to move forward and unable to go backwards, waiting for new instructions from the Cheshire-like Sebelius.
Barring a complete repeal of Obamacare (of which I am a strong proponent), Congress should, at the very least, postpone for a year the individual health insurance mandate and its associated penalties. This would accomplish two things: First, it would acknowledge that the American people should not be punished for the incompetent rollout of the health care insurance exchanges. Second, it would give Americans, now living through the Obamacare implementation nightmare, one last shot at expressing their opinions about the law at the ballot box in 2014.
On a practical note, I am not very optimistic that Sebelius and her team can fix the federal insurance exchanges quickly enough due to several fatal design flaws, the most critical being the requirement for new users to set up an account in the system before they begin shopping for health insurance coverage. Worried that consumers would be scared away from the exchanges when they saw the full cost of health insurance premiums, Sebelius made the decision that eligibility for Medicaid or federal premium subsidies should be determined before consumers could even see the various health insurance options that might be available to them, preventing them from even beginning the process of comparing and contrasting health insurance options. This placed an artificial bottleneck on the federally run exchanges, especially because Medicaid eligibility is a notoriously cumbersome process. Sebelius and her team are frantically trying to find work-around options to short-circuit this particular chokepoint, and this is just one of the dozens of problems they are trying to fix in a live environment with millions of new users trying to navigate the system every day.
Groucho Marx, the master comedian, once quipped that “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” In their determined efforts to migrate our private health care system toward a public health care system, President Obama and his administration focused on the gaps in our existing health care system, concluded that the entire market was broken, and decreed that unrestrained government intervention was the only answer. We are now discovering what unrestrained government intervention in health care markets feels like, and it’s not good.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.