How Self-Serving Politicians - Not Tech - Ruined the Obamacare Launch

Everyone agrees the Obamacare launch has been a total disaster, but the reason why it has been such a disaster is the real scandal.

The Obama administration spin machine has been running in overdrive trying to convince a skeptical American public that the Oct. 1 Obamacare launch went bad for technical reasons. They said traffic from a populace thrilled that the insurance exchanges had finally arrived overwhelmed the site.

But blaming the high volume of visitors (what, they didn't see that coming?) or complaining that there wasn't enough time to build a proper site - as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did to CNN recently - obscures what really doomed the Obamacare launch.

And while the healthcare law's Republican opponents have been milking the chaos as one grand "I-told-you-so" moment, the GOP played a major role in the meltdown of the website.

The truth is that the Obamacare launch could have gone much more smoothly were it not for a series of idiotic decisions made by both Republican and Democratic politicians over the past three-plus years.

These decisions were made not with the best interests of the nation in mind, but for self-serving and usually partisan reasons.

Coming from a bunch that spends most of its time name-calling and hurling accusations at each other rather than working together to address such critical problems as unemployment, the $17 trillion national debt, and the unsustainability of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, I suppose we shouldn't be shocked.

But how well Obamacare works - or doesn't - matters because healthcare makes up nearly one-fifth (18%) of the U.S. economy.

To see how we got here, take a look at the Obamacare facts that made the launch such a mess...

The Obamacare Launch Disaster: Three Years in the Making

Part I - How the Law Was Made
Unlike most large-scale legislation, the Affordable Care Act was passed with zero bipartisan support. At the time the law was being considered, Democrats held majorities in both chambers of Congress in addition to the White House. As such, they didn't feel the need to work with Republicans in crafting the law. That attitude had an immediate impact when Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, died before the Senate could pass the final version of the bill. When Sen. Scott Brown, R-MA, won the Kennedy seat, the Democrats lost their 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, was forced to use a parliamentary tactic known as "reconciliation," a tool reserved for budget bills, to get the law passed. In the end, every Republican in Congress voted against the ACA (one abstained), and all but three Democrats voted for it. That stark partisan divide ensured Obamacare would become a bitter political battleground that drove most of the bad decisions that came later.

Part II - Republican States Thumb Their Noses

While the Obama administration bears much of the responsibility for the Obamacare launch problems, one move by Republican governors went a long way toward setting up the website for failure. Determined to undermine the law, most refused to set up state-run websites - a key part of how Obamacare would work. They even turned down huge federal Medicare subsidies intended as an incentive to create the websites. In the end, 27 states opted out, with seven others electing to have their website run as a state-federal partnership (which in practice meant reliance on the federal website). Only 17 states actually set up their own Obamacare websites. That meant that would be the primary means of accessing the exchanges, instead of a secondary or backup site as originally planned.

Part III - Putting the Wrong People in Charge
Obamacare is the biggest tech project the federal government has ever attempted, involving 55 contractors and requiring the integration of the complex computer systems of at least five large federal agencies. Yet instead of giving oversight authority to a contractor experienced in such massive projects, the Obama administration kept it in-house, awarding the job to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of Health and Human Services. CMS had neither the manpower nor the expertise to manage such a project. So why did this happen? Ironically, the White House was worried that a contractor could be called before Congress. As it has turned out, the top contractors on the Obamacare website project have been called to Washington to testify anyway - and they're blaming the government for the troubled launch.

Part IV - Withholding Information, Last-Minute Changes
In her interview with CNN, Sebelius said that the Obamacare launch would have gone much smoother if they'd had five years to prepare instead of three and a half. But most of the contractors didn't even have that long, thanks to politics. The White House feared that Republicans would use some of the Obamacare facts about how the exchanges were to work as campaign fodder in the 2012 elections. So the Obama administration withheld a lot of critical information needed to create the website until after the 2012 elections, which delayed much of the code-writing until the spring of this year. But giving the contractors a fraction of the time needed for such a mammoth project virtually guaranteed disaster.

To make matters worse, federal officials demanded a major last-minute change to how the website was organized. Instead of allowing visitors to shop for healthcare plans without signing up, the Obama administration forced a switch so that people would have to create accounts and submit their basic information before getting to the prices of the available insurance plans. Why? Because in many cases the premiums of the new plans are much higher, and the administration wanted to make sure people saw their subsidized price so they wouldn't be frightened off by "sticker shock."

Part V - The Ostrich Syndrome
As the project neared the Oct. 1 launch date, most of the key contractors realized the system would fail. According to The Washington Post, a test run the week before with just a few hundred people crashed the site. The HHS, aware of the test, went forward with the Obamacare launch anyway. The Obama administration dreaded any delay to the launch because it would have given Republicans one more avenue of attack at the height of the battle over their attempt to defund Obamacare (which led to the government shutdown). Of course, now the disastrous Obamacare launch has supplied GOP opponents with an arsenal's worth of ammo against the healthcare law.

The reaction of the administration since the Obamacare launch has been an exercise in PR self-delusion not seen since the days of "Baghdad Bob." Despite the reassurances that the site will be fixed soon, many suspect the rushed code will reveal new, even more serious flaws in the weeks and months ahead.

Obamacare Facts: Poor Execution Could Doom the Whole Thing

While the issues with the website eventually will get fixed (an Obama administration official charged with the task promised on Friday all would be well by the end of November), the bad behavior of putting politics before the nation's welfare is a chronic problem.

As more of the law goes into effect, you can be sure that partisan considerations will make things worse at every turn - now, in 2014, and for years to come.

Such irresponsible and destructive behavior should make these jokers eligible for jail time, but most will simply get re-elected (or re-appointed by those that get re-elected).

What we may end up with instead is the worst of all worlds - the previous system destroyed and a new system so twisted by the political wars that it simply collapses.

While the Obamacare launch was rough, some people have actually gotten through. But despite the rosy promises from the president, they haven't liked everything that they've found. These real-life experiences with the exchanges may change how you look at Obamacare...

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About the Author

David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.

Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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