EDITORIAL: Healthcare.gov exchange failing by design

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went to Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field last week to promote Obamacare. As reported by Triblive.com, Ms. Sebelius was joined by Steelers chairman Dan Rooney in a conference room to educate attendees about the health care law and to promote enrollment.

Everyone got an education on how difficult it is to enroll.

The report noted that about 20 people sporting laptops were brought along to set up an enrollment center in the back of the room. But their efforts to access healthcare.gov, the federal insurance exchange, were fruitless, bringing to mind Ronald Reagan’s nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Since the online health care exchanges launched more than two weeks ago, there have been countless reports of problems, predominantly on the federal exchange and often attributed to the benign term “glitches.” However, it’s clear that healthcare.gov is not plagued by glitches — the problems are a direct result of the system’s design. As Avik Roy wrote at Forbes.com on Monday, healthcare.gov forces users to create an account and enter a significant amount of personal data before they can actually shop for insurance. That creates a massive data bottleneck while information is verified and processed to determine eligibility for subsidies.

Politics guided the construction of the exchanges. The law’s architects did not want consumers to see the costs of plans or deductible amounts upfront. President Barack Obama and Democratic leadership promised reduced health care costs, but instead delivered a system that imposes stunning increases in premiums and deductibles for most people. Precious few Americans would spend five minutes on the site, let alone pour their personal information into a federal database, if they saw the costs first. Mr. Roy noted, “This political objective — masking the true underlying cost of Obamacare’s insurance plans — far outweighed the operational objective of making the federal website work properly.”

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, generally a supporter of the president, said the federal exchange has “performed disastrously.” In an interview with health policy expert Robert Laszewski, Mr. Klein asked what went wrong. “The Obama administration never brought in heavyweight IT people to oversee this. … Their senior people had no information technology background,” Mr. Laszewski said.

This meltdown wouldn’t be happening if the exchanges were guided by efficiency and technological capability instead of politics. And the websites wouldn’t have to play “hide the ball” with consumers if Obamacare had bipartisan support.

The worst part: This is not something that can be fixed in a matter of weeks. The sites need to be thoroughly rethought.

“The problem with the Obama administration keeping this open is it’s five times harder to fix something like this on the run. If it would’ve taken a month to fix it during the (site) shutdown, it’ll take three or four or five months to fix it while it was running,” Mr. Laszewski said. By then, the deadline for obtaining coverage will pass, triggering IRS penalties.

Now, a really scary thought: What else might go wrong?

Neither the president nor Senate Democrats will support the repeal of Obamacare. But what we’ve seen in just two weeks makes the case for delaying the individual mandate for one year. It’s not only fair, it’s absolutely necessary.