Shopping for Obamacare is torture


Anyone still having any trouble understanding why Donald Trump won the presidential election might try doing what I did over the past several weeks, which is shop for health insurance using one of the “exchanges” created by President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

If Trump intends to follow through on his threat to bring back torture for captured terrorists, he might forget about waterboarding or Guantanamo and instead just assign the al-Qaida or ISIS fighters to try navigating the online health insurance marketplace created by the president and congressional Democrats.

More than six years since the law was enacted, you’d think that the problems would have been fixed. Yet my experience was frustrating.

The adventure started back on Oct. 29, when I read a newspaper article reporting that, while purchase and enrollment in health insurance wasn’t available until Nov. 1, previews of plans and prices were available at healthcare.gov. I went to healthcare.gov and clicked “preview 2017 plans and prices.” I entered my ZIP code and got a message: “Visit Massachusetts Health Connector’s Website.”

Massachusetts, where I live, had a head start on this. Gov. Mitt Romney had established a universal health care plan and online marketplace before Obama even took office. Obamacare, alas, wrecked that. The current governor, Charlie Baker, had a previous career as a health insurance executive, and has the management ability and knowledge to fix things if the federal government would allow him the flexibility.

Alas, when I clicked on the Massachusetts Health Connector — what the state calls its Obamacare exchange — I got this message: “Maintenance Notice: The Health Connector has been informed that the Centers for Medicare &Medicaid Services (CMS) is scheduled to perform planned maintenance on the Federal Data Services Hub starting on Friday, 10/28/2016 from 8:00 PM to Saturday, 10/29/2016 at 12:00 AM EDT AND AGAIN Starting on Sunday, 10/30/2016 from 12:00 AM to 10:00 AM. During this maintenance period, one or more critical services through the Federal Data Services Hub will be temporarily unavailable to state-based Marketplaces and you will not be able to complete your application. …. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

I tried again Monday, Nov. 1. Before I could look at plans or prices, I had to answer, for each of five members of my household: “Is the household member a member of a federally-recognized American Indian or Alaska Native tribe?”

When I finally got in deep enough to see the plans and their expensive prices, the site offered me the option to download the details into an Excel spreadsheet. When I tried, I met the message: “Error! It appears you have encountered a technical issue. Please try again or contact Customer Service at 1-877-623-6765 (TTY 1-877-623-7773) during business hours …”

I tried again Dec. 4 and was greeted with yet another “Maintenance Notice”: “The Health Connector has been informed that the Centers for Medicare &Medicaid Services (CMS) is scheduled to perform planned maintenance on the Federal Data Services Hub starting on Saturday, 12/3/2016 from 11:00 PM to Sunday 12/4/2016 at 10:00 AM. During this maintenance period, one or more critical services through the Federal Data Services Hub will be temporarily unavailable … you will not be able to complete your application ….”

During this same period, I visited plenty of other websites that allowed me to compare prices and products and purchase them. Those for-profit sites permitted me to shop without entering the American Indian status for any members of my family, let alone requiring it for all five. They somehow seemed able to operate their sites without taking them down for maintenance for dozens of hours at a time on multiple days.

It’s almost enough to make a person suspect that the private sector might be able to solve this problem better than government has.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.