Chicago Tribune drops the hammer on Obamacare

posted at 10:11 pm on October 15, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

I’m sure none of us tire of reading all the news accounts and editorials that—tragically, for those affected— echo the exact concerns and criticisms we all had of Obamacare before it passed. But this one’s a particularly straightforward and thorough takedown of the administration’s amateur hour performance, in the president’s home state.

First, the technical problems:

If you’ve tried to sign up online for health coverage under the problem-plagued Obamacare exchange, our sympathies. Many people have tried to create accounts and shop for insurance under the new law. Few have succeeded. Those that have enrolled have found that the system is prone to mistakes. Some applications have been sent to the wrong insurance company…

• Illinois officials boasted that insurance premiums here would be lower than expected. But the Tribune reported Sunday that 21 of the 22 lowest-priced plans offered for Cook County residents have whopping annual deductibles of more than $4,000 for an individual and $8,000 for family coverage. That’s much more than many families can afford to pay.

• The Obama administration delayed issuing major rules to set up the exchanges until after the 2012 presidential election and refused to push back the Oct. 1 launch date, lest Republicans take political advantage, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

• Sloppy design of the architecture of the computer system, not simply an overload of users, created the problems that are blocking people from applying online for coverage, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

“These are not glitches,” an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange told the Times. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

The Department of Health and Human Services under chief Obamacare cheerleader Kathleen Sebelius has had three years to develop this system. It has busted deadline after deadline, all the while promising that the system would be ready on Oct. 1. It has overpromised and underdelivered. The excuse? Demand was unexpectedly high, crashing servers. Unexpected? Americans have been bombarded with marketing campaigns and news stories and outreach efforts on behalf of Obamacare. And now Sebelius and Co. are shocked that people are logging in to … buy insurance? Come on, Ms. Sebelius.

At this point, the Tribune‘s call last week for a delay in the individual mandate sounds as prescient as Republicans would have sounded if they’d spent the last two months focusing on the same:

As we write, we don’t know what Illinois residents may find when they surf to the new website, or call the help desk at 866-311-1119. It’s open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Federal and state officials have scrambled for months, blowing deadline after deadline, to make the system ready. They’ve encountered bugs: A few days ago came reports that the software was miscalculating the federal subsidies available to low-income people who seek to buy coverage.

We all know the people who crouch in front of their computers, ready at the stroke of midnight to buy the latest iPhone or sign up for the Next Big Internet Thing. In this case, however, you may want to wait for a few days (weeks?) to let the feds work out the kinks.

What’s certain is that Obamacare health care changes will ripple through every American’s life. Doctors, hospitals and insurers have invested large sums to gear up for the law’s complex requirements. They’ll treat many new patients.

The Tribune also focuses on a personal story. This is just one of many people who have already been negatively affected by Obamacare, among those who were promised they could keep their doctor, keep their plan, and their prices would go down:

Those who have managed to browse the marketplace have often been hit by sticker shock. Take Adam Weldzius, a nurse practitioner and single father from Carpentersville. He sought the same level of coverage on the exchange as he and his 7-year-old daughter have now, with the same insurer and the same network of doctors and hospitals. At best, Weldzius found, his monthly premium of $233 would more than double. If he chose a plan priced at the same level, the annual deductible would be $12,700, more than three times his current $3,500 deductible.

“I believe everybody should be able to have health insurance, but at the same time, I’m being penalized. And for what?” Weldzius told the Tribune’s Peter Frost. “For someone who’s always had insurance, who’s always taken care of myself, now I have to change my plan?”

Weldzius echoes the concerns of even liberals in the Bay Area who have partially seen the light after sticker shock got delivered to their doorsteps:

“I was laughing at Boehner — until the mail came today,” Waschura said, referring to House Speaker John Boehner, who is leading the Republican charge to defund Obamacare.

“I really don’t like the Republican tactics, but at least now I can understand why they are so pissed about this. When you take $10,000 out of my family’s pocket each year, that’s otherwise disposable income or retirement savings that will not be going into our local economy.”

Both Vinson and Waschura have adjusted gross incomes greater than four times the federal poverty level — the cutoff for a tax credit. And while both said they anticipated their rates would go up, they didn’t realize they would rise so much.

“Of course, I want people to have health care,” Vinson said. “I just didn’t realize I would be the one who was going to pay for it personally.”

And, then there are the broken promises, again via the Tribune:

There are more problems. People who have individual insurance coverage are finding that Obama’s oft-repeated promise — “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan” — is just not true. They are being told by insurers that their existing plans expire on Dec. 31 and they must choose new coverage. They’re learning that insurers managed to offer lower-cost plans by narrowing the networks of hospitals and doctors that are available or by upping the out-of-pocket expenses. Unless people are careful in selecting coverage, they may be surprised to find they have to pay much more for out-of-network care to go to their doctors or get treated at the best hospitals. Federal officials argue that they’ll work out the kinks in the system in plenty of time for people to sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Yes, the techies might be able to work out the computer network problems by then. But that’s not a given.

This thing is a total disaster, and one that’s compounding its own problems daily. There needs to be a drop-dead date for shutting it down and not requiring families and individuals to submit themselves to this, as Allahpundit and Megan McArdle pointed out this morning. Ironically, if it fails badly enough— and it seems almost certain it will, because who really believes this thing is going to be operational by mid-November or early December?—Republicans may get at least a one-year delay of the individual mandate. And, they didn’t even have to shut down the government to get it.

Update: Some in comments raise a fair point about my last sentence. I put this in comments, but it’s worth posting here:

Yes, a totally fair point, and I should have written it differently because I don’t think it was conservatives who pushed us to government shutdown. As I’ve said on TV a ton of times, it’s not unprecedented to negotiate over funding of the gov’t or debt ceiling; it’s unprecedented to refuse to negotiate and then act like negotiation is unprecedented. I should have written “without the government shutting down.” I just meant we could have gotten a one-year individual mandate delay without any of the last two weeks or the brand damage sustained therein. That’s my take on what we should have done. Many disagree. Fine. I feel like we put ourselves in a position where *mitigation* of a p.r. calamity was the biggest win we could hope for. I think a material policy win on individual mandate delay and enforcing the income verification would have been preferable. On the ground, I think that would have meant a significant delay of most (if not all) of the law, a palatable message for most of the country’s voters, fewer people hooked on subsidies, and yes, more media focus on the disaster that is Obamacare.

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