From the time he first campaigned for president, Barack Obama said he hoped “to make government cool again.” One of his basic philosophies was that government, despite the misgivings of his opponents, could solve problems and make life better for Americans.
So much for that.
In the wake of the disastrous rollout of the website meant to implement the Affordable Care Act, former president Ronald Reagan’s “nine most terrifying words” seem to resonate most: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
News reports this week revealed that CGI Group, the company hired to create the healthcare.gov website, has a long trail of problems related to government contracts. These problems should have come to light before the government chose CGI for the job, but there never was any bidding process in the way familiar to many private sector, and even government, contractors. Fox News reported the company was one of 16 that had been pre-qualified to bid, and that it was one of four that actually submitted bids.
An investigator with the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group in Washington, told Fox News that companies doing business with government generally just have to get a foot in the door. “Once you’ve got your foot in the door, even if they don’t do a great job, you end up getting relied upon because (the government) has no one else to turn to.”
And CGI has been careful to generously contribute to the campaign funds of both parties, as well as spending $400,000 on lobbying in 2011 and ’12, Fox reported.
Yet CGI and its subsidiaries had problems while overhauling Hawaii’s tax department, while creating a diabetes registry for Ontario, Canada and while producing Vermont’s health exchange.
In Hawaii, an audit found the company was paid for work it never finished. In Canada, the company’s contract was canceled after it missed deadlines to the point where its work had become obsolete, and in Vermont it also missed many deadlines and produced a website with problems similar to healthcare.gov, according to Fox.
In addition, Fox said critics also hold the government responsible for setting up deadlines that couldn’t reasonably be met and for not properly testing software before beginning the enrollment period.
Such problems certainly exist in the private sector, as well. But when they happen, companies lose profits and customers. They are forced to react quickly or go out of business.
When these problems happen in the public sector, politics enter in, often prohibiting real solutions. The administration doesn’t want to delay the Obamacare enrollment period for fear of providing a victory to Republicans.
Some Democrats are nervous about all this, as evidenced by their support last week for a Republican House bill that seeks to allow insurance companies to continue selling policies that wouldn’t qualify under Obamacare’s rules. The president himself is suffering from approval ratings that are almost, but not quite, as low as the health care law’s itself.
Other observers say all of this will blow over once the website is fixed and the program is functioning. We doubt that, considering the law’s many other flaws.
The biggest loser in all this, however, seems to be the notion that big government can solve problems better than the private sector.
Government has an important role to provide, but the lack of a profit incentive, together with politics (the Affordable Care Act was passed with no Republican support) generally get in the way of efficiencies.