Catholic experts weigh in on Obamacare woes

President Barack Obama’s political team could not have imagined a worse rollout of the controversial Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Despite teams of technical experts working around the clock for weeks, the overhauled government website that was supposed to enroll millions of Americans in health care was still crashing earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Obama had to amend the new health care system — which will likely define his legacy — to allow millions of Americans to keep their current health plans for an extra year after his promise that citizens could keep their plans turned out to be inaccurate.

In October, health insurance companies began sending out cancellation letters informing consumers that their plans were being canceled because they did not meet minimum coverage standards established by the Affordable Care Act.

While announcing the one-year extension of current health plans, the president tried to reframe the issue by saying consumers who received the cancellation letters could get better insurance coverage cheaper or at the same cost on the health exchanges.

Serious blowback

However, the president’s backtrack on the canceled plans was a “terrible” political setback, said Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

“Obviously, I think the president was unaware of how the plan would work for people who purchased any other insurance on the market. I think he was kind of caught off guard by that,” Schneck told Our Sunday Visitor.

However, Father Michael P. Orsi, chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria University, told OSV that the president and his advisers knew that millions of Americans would not be able to keep their health plans. Various published reports indicate that the president’s policy advisers clashed with his political team about making such a sweeping promise in public.

“The president and his advisers knew. They lied, period. It’s a lie. A lot of people fell for the president’s promise,” Father Orsi said.

Faced with serious political blowback, the administration’s “first defense was an attempt to explain away the awkward fact that President Obama sold America his legacy legislation under false pretenses,” Stephen P. White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., wrote on the CatholicVote.org blog.

Meanwhile, various internal memorandums, emails and congressional committee hearings indicate that some officials at the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had their doubts as to whether HealthCare.gov would be ready for its Oct. 1 launch.

For example, internal White House emails released Nov. 20 by House Republicans reveal that administration and health officials feared that HealthCare.gov would not be functional a week before its disastrous launch.

A Sept. 27 memo also surfaced in which two HHS officials said there was a “high risk” because the website’s security features had not been properly tested before its launch. Government officials told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the website was secure.

Ideological issues

Dr. John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, told OSV that he was “surprised” with how poorly the website was constructed, but he said there were some clear ideological causes.

Brehany noted recent reports that show the Obama administration, at the height of the 2012 presidential election, delayed issuing a set of key rules and instructions for contractors to complete the website by Oct. 1, 2013. The administration did not release those instructions until after the election.

“People didn’t have time to build all those rules and implications for health insurance into the website,” Brehany said, adding that the results were federal bureaucrats impeding the technical experts from doing their job.

The end product was a website that continually crashed as people tried logging on in its early days. Only six people were able to enroll for health insurance through the website on the first day, according to documents released by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the White House has spent upwards of $394 million to design, construct and repair HealthCare.gov, which is supposed to be the online portal for consumers in 36 states to shop for health insurance.

People who lost their health insurance plans were supposed to have a viable alternative awaiting them in the health exchanges, White wrote, adding: “Unfortunately for them, three-and-a-half years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the Obama administration still hasn’t built a working alternative.”

Schneck, who supported Obama’s re-election campaign, told OSV that it appeared the website was originally underfunded.

“They’re at a point where they’re sending more resources in getting it up to speed,” Schneck said. “The website was poorly constructed and insufficiently tested before it went live. That is something the administration has to be blamed for, for failing to ensure this wasn’t working correctly.”

Throughout November, teams of technical experts worked to sort out the bugs and glitches. The Obama administration promised the website would be repaired by Nov. 30, though the president and his aides tried carving out some political wiggle room by saying the “vast majority of” Americans could enroll through HealthCare.gov starting Dec. 1.

However, in early December, the rush of consumers logging on to the website caused more errors and glitches, prompting federal officials to turn on a queuing system on Dec. 1 that alerted some visitors to return to the site later.

“Yes, the website has been a disaster. But even if the website had been a bang-up success, Jan. 1, 2014 is coming,” Dr. Brehany said, referring to the day that the new health insurance system kicks in for consumers who enroll before year’s end.

Legacy at stake

In a less-polarized Washington, Schneck said the Obama administration could have submitted smaller pieces of the health care legislation, including the website, to Congress to “fix” through legislation.

“Given the current environment in Congress, I don’t think the administration can probably do that. Nothing they would send to Congress would get received well by the Republicans,” Schneck said. 

“Unfortunately, that means that all of the heavy lifting has to be done without legislation to fix things. That’s going to be tough. It will take some time, but I’m pretty confident that eventually, maybe by next spring, everything will be running pretty smoothly,” Schneck said.

Despite his misgivings about the Affordable Care Act, Father Orsi said he does not doubt that the administration will fix HealthCare.gov.

“The law is not going to go away because of a technical glitch,” Father Orsi said. “For a while, people are going to be upset, but this is not going to be the end of Obamacare.

“We’re stuck with this,” Father Orsi added. “Obama has three years to get this fixed. This is part of his legacy. You can be sure he will use all the government resources, which are vast, to get this fixed. He’s not going to let this go.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.