Today was the first day Americans could try to access health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — known to some as “Obamacare.”
It’s fair to say that the process didn’t go smoothly. The Chicago Tribune reported, for example, that consumers seeking information encountered “long delays, error messages and a largely non-working federal insurance exchange and call center Tuesday morning.” It’s not entirely clear how widespread the problems were, and are, but the prevailing theme of the news stories was about difficulties, failures, and frustrations. As the video above shows, one MSNBC anchor tried to obtain information about options on-line, to try to help viewers understand how the process worked, and was hit with error messages, inability to resolve the issues through an on-line chat session, and finally being put on hold for more than 30 minutes before hanging up because her patience was exhausted.
The President says there will be problems and “glitches” because we are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. I’m not sure that is quite right — there are commercial websites that handle significant volumes of traffic without problems — but his reaction, I think, misses a fundamental point that would not be lost on a businessman. One of the selling points for the Affordable Care Act was that people could quickly and easily get information about competing health insurance options with a few clicks of a mouse. Given that pitch, a business would never roll out a website without being absolutely certain that it worked well, because businesses know that consumers can quickly become frustrated — and a frustrated consumer is one that is not likely to come back. It says something about the government mindset that they would go live with websites that clearly aren’t ready.
The people implementing the Affordable Care Act missed a real opportunity today. The negative publicity about the websites and their problems are the kind of thing that could become fixed in the minds of the American public, with people coming to accept as conventional wisdom the notion that the websites, and exchanges, are an enormous hassle fraught with delay and failure. When you’re trying to convince people who aren’t insured to become insured, and you’re trying to overcome the drumbeat of Republican criticism of “Obamacare,” a disastrous first-day roll-out just makes your job immeasurably harder.