When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

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Obamacare’s First Birthday

It’s hard to believe, but it was only a year ago on October 1 that Obamacare, through that ill-fated healthcare.gov website, was born.  Parents will tell you that a newborn’s first year passes by in a blur — and it has, hasn’t it?  It sure seems like more than a year ago that we were hearing about wait times and website crashes, but ISIS beheadings and Ebola outbreaks and other assorted disasters have a way of telescoping the passage of time.

So, how is Obamacare doing on its first birthday?  Not surprisingly, given the superheated controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, it kind of depends who you ask.

The New York Post has done a review and gives Obamacare an overall grade of “F,” because it has cost a lot of money, hasn’t really made a huge dent in the mass of uninsured people, has messed with a lot of people’s plans, and is affecting full-time job creation by businesses because of the costs it imposes.  The Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, has released a report that says Obamacare has produced a significant reduction in uncompensated costs that have to be borne by hospitals, presumably because there are fewer uninsured people who can’t pay their hospital bills.  Yahoo Finance, in a survey article, found that some people like it and some people hate it, depending on whether Obamacare has raised or reduced their costs, helped them get insurance that they couldn’t have received otherwise, or eliminated plans they liked.

And — some things never change — the healthcare.gov website is back in the news again, because it has a “critical vulnerability” in the security area.  Basically, it appears that the government entity that manages the website hasn’t been using the basic available tools to monitor security issues and test for website vulnerabilities.  It’s not clear whether any people who have used the website — and entered in lots of highly personal information in their quest for insurance — have experienced any identity theft or similar problems.

Regardless of your political affiliation or your view of Obamacare, there is one finding that pretty much everyone should be happy to celebrate on Obamacare’s birthday.   A Washington Post review of congressional floor speeches found that, this month, members of Congress mentioned “Obamacare” only 27 times.  That 1/100th of the number of mentions Obamacare received in October 2013.  Isn’t it nice to not hear politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, yammering about Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare?

Politically, does that mean Obamacare is no longer the hot topic it once was, or does it just mean that Obamacare has been knocked off the front pages by other problems and issues?  Beats me, but my gut instinct is that the Republicans are wise to not beat the Obamacare drum incessantly.  People who hate Obamacare or feel they were screwed by it don’t need to be reminded over and over.  Focusing on ISIS, terrorism, the border, and other non-Obamacare topics make the Republicans seem like less of a one-trick pony.

Adding Up The Obamacare Tab

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, its drafters contemplated that states would design their own health care exchanges, with the federal healthcare.gov website serving as a kind of backstop.  That turned out to be a miscalculation.  More than 60 percent of the states — 36 out of 50 — elected not to create their own health care exchanges.

At the time, some critics argued that the decisions of states with Republican governors to refrain from building their own websites was politically motivated.  In retrospect, however, the decisions to eschew developing state-specific health care exchanges seem more like a wise recognition of the limitations of state capabilities, because the experiences of states that did attempt their own websites have been decidedly mixed.

Six of the 14 states that chose to create their own exchanges — Masschusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii — have had severe functionality problems and have become tremendous cash drains and political albatrosses.  In Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, and Maryland alone, the federal government has paid at least $474 million to support the establishment of non-functional exchanges, and that cost total seems certain to increase significantly.  In those states, Democratic politicians are blaming the website contractors and threatening litigation, and Republicans are saying that the states never should have attempted to build the exchanges in the first place.

Obamacare has become such a political football that every fact and development gets spun to death — but if we can’t learn from the current reality, and recognize that mistakes were made in the legislation and its conception, then we are just compounding our problems.  In all, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about $5 billion in federal funds that have been shelled out to states to allow them to assess whether to create state-specific exchanges and then, in some cases, to support their creation.  That’s an enormous sum of money, and it is becoming clear that a significant part of it has been wasted.  Whatever happens with Obamacare, let’s at least hope that in the future we refrain from enacting statutes that require states to develop large-scale, complicated technological systems, on their own, with the federal government picking up the tab.  As the mounting Obamacare costs demonstrate, that approach is fraught with peril.

Our Cutting-Edge Government

On Saturday the Washington Post published a stunning news article — one of those pieces that make you shake your head in wonder and disgust.

The story, by reporter David Fahrenthold, is about how the Office of Personnel Management — the main agency charged with human resources function for federal employees — processes the retirement paperwork of those federal employees. And “paperwork” is apt, because even though it is March 2014, the process is done almost entirely by hand and almost entirely on paper. Imagine! And to make it even weirder, it all happens underground, in a remote abandoned mine in Pennsylvania that received paper forms by the truckload and is filled with filing cabinets. That’s right — filing cabinets.

Using its antiquated process, it takes 61 days for the Office of Personnel Management to complete the retirement process. By contrast it takes Texas two days.

Does any large private company still process personnel actions on paper and by hand? Do any still maintain filing cabinets of sensitive personnel documents?

No wonder these guys botched the job of designing a functioning website!

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

Chris Christie’s Rep

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finds himself trapped in a weird and growing scandal. It’s a huge potential problem for a man who apparently entertains visions of a run for the presidency, because the scandal goes to the very core of Christie’s reputation.

The scandal involves communications by a member of Christie’s staff in which she apparently instructed that two lanes on the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey and New York City to be closed for no reason other than to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had not supported Christie’s recent reelection campaign. The unnecessary closures caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee and around the bridge and lots of anguish for travelers trapped in a commuting hell traffic snarl. There are apparently no emails or texts showing the Christie himself was directly aware of the decision to close the lanes to exact some political retribution, and in fact he denies knowledge of the actions and criticized the staffers once the communications were disclosed.

In New Jersey — a state that many associate with a highway, the New Jersey Turnpike — commuting, lane closures, and passages to New York City are serious stuff. But this grotesque misuse of power involves much higher stakes for Christie because it undercuts his image. Outside of New Jersey, he has a reputation as a kind of pragmatic populist — a bluff, plain-talking everyman who will get the job done for the people of his state, even if it means standing up to entrenched interests like teachers unions or enduring the criticism of the conservative wing of his own party. There is nothing pragmatic or populist about causing unnecessary angst and delays for New Jersey commuters to achieve some kind of cheap political payback, however. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of stupid political stunt that you can imagine Christie blasting with his customary bluntness.

It remains to be seen whether there is evidence that Christie had any involvement in this incident, and his personal response to the incident and related investigation will tell a lot about its likely impact on his career. For now, the incident looks like it could be as permanently damaging for Christie’s rep as the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been to President Obama’s carefully cultivated image for cool competence. The difference is that President Obama isn’t going to be running for President in 2016.

The Deadline Arrives

It’s December 1.  Normally that wouldn’t mean much, except for a turn of the calendar page.  This year, however, it’s a bit different, because it’s been established as the date by which the healthcare.gov website is supposed to be operating at some reasonable level of functionality.

It’s not entirely clear what standard of performance will be the measuring stick; if you listen to different members of the Obama Administration, the goals seem to be a bit of a moving target.  But back when the healthcare.gov website was a crashing, frozen embarrassment, the Administration set November 30 as the deadline.  Now we can expect the website to be the most scrutinized, evaluated website in the history of computers.  There will be a huge spike in usage today, caused in large part by hordes of journalists and bloggers and curious folks who just want to see what the fuss is all about.  You have to wonder — how many of the people on the website are actually using it for its intended purpose of trying to shop for health insurance, rather than messing around trying to see what causes an error message?

We can expect lots of stories about the website over the next few days, from all points along the political spectrum.  Progressives will rave about how much the website has improved, and conservatives will focus on its remaining failures.  The website story will be treated like a horse race, with winners and losers.  In the meantime, average Americans everywhere should be asking how this happened, and why we are spending so much money to fix a website that clearly shouldn’t have been so poorly designed at the outset.  On that latter point, the New York Times has an interesting piece about how the failure happened and how the Obama Administration reacted.  It’s not an attractive story.