Gwen's Take: “Glitches” Then and Now

Posted: Thu, 10/24/2013 - 5:37pm

OK, boys and girls. It's time for another fun trip in the way-way-back-machine.

You will remember that just a few weeks ago, I took you back to a 1995 Washington Week discussion about government shutdowns that sounded awfully, awfully familiar.

“The whole idea of compromise has become so devalued in this city,” reporter Steve Roberts said. “And you have people on both sides of the aisle saying compromise is the equivalent of selling out, or caving in or betraying.”

Four days into the government shutdown of 1995, the focus was on how to resolve the stalemate and where the political blame would be laid [Photo: Washington Week].

Because everything old is new again, I'll treat you to another case of “we've-been-here-before.” But this time the topic is big health care rollouts.

It's been difficult to ignore the roar of debate over the rocky launch of the health care law coverage exchanges – presented to the American public as a way to make affordable heath coverage available to a wide swath of previous uninsured Americans. 

It would be as simple as buying an airline ticket online, the President said. It would be cheaper than what the insurance companies are asking you to pay now, his aides added. The government website featured smiling faces of indeterminate ethnicity. They looked like the person sitting next to you on the train.

It all seemed so very accessible.

But the launch was almost immediately consumed by technical snafus. We called them "glitches," but it quickly became clear the problems were bigger than that.

Within a week, politicians were demanding someone be fired. Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, seemed the obvious target. Efficiency experts were hired. President Obama, sounding like he should be on late night television selling chamois cloths, began peddling an 800 fix-it telephone number. The number was busy. Reporters panicked.

We'd never seen anything like this before, right?

"We're dealing with it," the President said. "Our job is to solve problems when they arise. When you have that big a shift, you can imagine there's going to be glitches. But, by far, the vast majority of people are signing up to a program that's making a big difference in their lives. "

But those words were uttered in 2006, the President speaking was George W. Bush, and the problematical rollout involved Medicare Part D, an ambitious program to provide prescription drug coverage to the elderly, which stumbled out of the gate in late 2005.

"There was also a rush to conclude something is good or bad really fast," Gary Karr, a government spokesman at the time, tells the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff. "That's not different than it was in 2005. Generally, the political system is not patient."

Medicare Part D was created under 2003 legislation and put into effect in January 2006 [Photo:CNN].

I was alerted to this digging through our reliable Washington Week Vault of archived programs -- a humbling reminder of how swift and how fast reporters can draw conclusions.

I pride myself on inviting Washington's best reporters to our Friday night non-dinner party, so it's fair to say this was the best available analysis in early 2006.

"The most glaring problem that we’ve seen after just 2-1/2 weeks of this new program …. is that the sickest and poorest elderly and disabled Americans are having great difficulty in taking advantage of this new coverage," said Ceci Connolly, who at the time covered health care policy for The Washington Post. "It’s for a variety of reasons. Many of them have to do with computer glitches, backlogs, difficulty getting through on the telephone, new ID cards not arriving in the mail on time….”

“The administration is very quickly trying to downplay the problems,” she continued. “They’re cracking the whip over these various insurance companies saying ‘You’ve got to add more people on your toll free hotlines and you’ve got to fix your computer problems and work ‘round the clock.’”

Linda Greenhouse, then of the New York Times, queried: “I’ve been kind of puzzled by this whole thing because the law was passed more than a year ago so ... it was not a surprise that it was coming in … Was anything happening that year to anticipate or try to work through this?”

“It’s hard to start a new insurance program for 43 million people," Ceci replied. "That’s a big undertaking. But what many people will tell you is because this administration and Congress wanted it to be privately-run rather than a government-run program, you’ve got dozens if not hundreds of insurance companies that are all getting in the mix and it’s taking a long time to establish rules and regulations, to come up with proper computer databases.”

Yes, it's complicated. Yes, it's expensive. And, yes, big change is fraught with big politics. But the Affordable Care Act success or failure is linked to this President by more than its "Obamacare" nickname. It is clattering into the public consciousness at a time of high decibels, high dudgeon and perilous partisanship.

It may be true that, as with Medicare Part D, those who sign up for Obamacare will eventually love it. But it will have to survive the politics first.