Apologies Are Not Enough

When the Affordable Care Act made its gala debut, complaints and criticisms focused on the glitches. HealthCare.gov has been a virtual parody of website woe: Inability to log in, constant error messages, long delays, disappearing profiles, site shutdowns and more, all designed (or undesigned) to frustrate millions of hopeful enrollees.

Enrollment foul-ups have not been the only consequences of a not-ready-for-rollout system. CBS News aired an investigation which revealed multiple security issues making users vulnerable to theft of user names, passwords and vital personal data. The fatal flaw: incompetence under pressure. A deadline for final security plans was delayed repeatedly over last summer, and final top-to-bottom security tests were never performed before the launch.

While it was somewhat disingenuous for the administration to claim that any large new system is bound to have glitches, since they had literally years to prepare this thing, most people were willing to be patient for the rollout to get rolling. Our experience in the high-tech era has taught us, among other things, how imperfect computers are.

As the lack of proper pre-rollout testing was exposed in hearings, and problems persisted, patience has worn thin. Not since FDR’s ill-considered scheme to pack the Supreme Court with additional pro-New Deal justices has a president’s over-ambitious legislative program so provoked the general wrath.

No doubt, President Obama is mindful of the potential electoral consequences; his fellow Democrats certainly are. By this time next year, voters will have decided races for all 435 House seats and 33 of the 100 Senate seats, including 21 now held by Democrats. You don’t have to be a master strategist to figure out what issue the Republicans will seize upon; they already have.

But it isn’t just the website that needs an overhaul; it’s the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with the fiasco.

A few days ago, President Obama offered the American people an apology. Referring to the outcry over the administration’s false promise that no one would be forced to give up their old health coverage for a government-approved policy, he said: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

President Obama had made repeated assurances that “if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan.” Yet, already insurers are sending cancellation notices to customers whose current policies don’t meet the new law’s more stringent standards — at least 3.5 million Americans.

To make matters worse, it was reported recently that the administration knew since the summer of 2010 that millions of Americans could lose their insurance under Affordable Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated then that “40 to 67 percent” of 14 million consumers could lose their policies in the new health-care regime.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Rep.), who had personally urged Obama to apologize, said that the statement he made was “not enough.”

“The fact is that the president didn’t tell the truth,” and he needs to “confront [that] in a head-on way.”

Whether or not we will have another installment of presidential contrition remains to be seen. But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been getting it head-on. During testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, she faced a fearsome firing line.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas told Sebelius to her face that she should resign. While her response to that was stoic silence, she did admit that the administration’s website was extensively flawed when it first went online and that “we’re not there yet” in making all the necessary fixes.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee, told Sebelius: “While I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with.”

Obama defended his health secretary, pointing out that the website bugs aren’t necessarily her fault: “Kathleen Sebelius doesn’t write code. She wasn’t our IT person,” he said.

True. But she and her boss are the responsible officers of the government in this matter. They are responsible for the IT persons; and the website should have either been ready on time, or postponed. As John F. Kennedy — to whom Barack Obama has sometimes been compared — memorably said when taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco: “Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.” In other words, don’t blame it on the IT guy.

As for the way forward, Sebelius testified on improvements in the website operation. It can now process nearly 17,000 registrations an hour, with almost no errors, she said.

Deflecting a suggestion that the site should be shut down until fully fixed, she countered that doing so “wouldn’t delay people’s cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s [disease].”

In the midst of all the recriminations and politicking, it is good to be reminded of what this is all about — better health care for more Americans, some of whom can’t afford to wait for all the problems to be sorted out.