Computer snafus abound–but let’s hope the website is the worst thing about the Affordable Care Act


Asian Americans, dutifully trying to meet early decision college deadlines last week, may have found themselves–like my daughter—on the Common App website.

After the experience, I’m not sure if any of the apps got to the colleges to which she applied.

But she did get this notice: “Congratulations on your application for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act!”

OK, I joke. Seen one computer snafu, seen them all.

In the case of the government’s health care website, it seems like either bad code or a lack of capacity.

Sure enough, the ACA site apparently needs up to 5 million lines of new code just to make it work. And both the Common App and the health care site seemed to have been bogged down by sheer volume. The Common App folks were hit by early admissions applicants. The health care site was stymied by all the uninsured who wanted to check it out, said to be 20 million unique visitors.

The short-term answer to all this is patience. Don’t kill the IT guy.

Or take the low tech approach. Pick up the phone. Get out a pen. Fill out the app. Mail it in.

Especially in the case of the ACA, there’s no need to create a red-herring debate. The law isn’t called the Affordable Website Act.

And that may be just the problem.

When government protocols call for the lowest bidder, that usually leads to the cheapest and oldest technology. You’re virtually assured a lousy website. Better than some sabotage job done by a Tea Party hacker.

At least President Obama had a decent Plan B.

On Monday, the president unveiled an 800 number where you can talk to a real person in a call center. Not one in India or the Philippines, but in the U.S.A. (I called and got a call center in Mississippi).

The number is 1-800-318-2596.

They didn’t spring for some cutesy 1-800-BooTedCruz number.

In fact, 1-800-318-2596 barely spells anything. (2-5-9-6 might spell A-K-Y-N, as in you’re “aching” for health care. But otherwise, rest assured, no extra tax dollars have gone into making the number any more memorable.)

Aside from the website, there are also lists of local folks ready to assist. And, in the lowest of low tech options, you can always print out a 3-page app, fill it out, and mail it in. (Go U.S. Postal Service!)

I wish that was all that it took to fix ACA’s issues.

But despite the president’s insistence that the product, if not the website, is a good one, that’s still a debatable point.

ACA has always been a compromise. Socialized medicine it’s not. The law is actually devised by the insurance giants, and despite some real benefits, such as lifting the exclusions of pre-existing conditions, it’s really a plan that comes with the blessing of corporate insurers.

That’s why the holdouts for the more efficient, cost-effective “single payer” health plan have been sitting on the sidelines shaking their heads.

They wish it was just a website problem.

“Complexity is baked into Obamacare and is thus doomed to fail,” said Russell Mokhiber, founder of Single Payer Action, in a statement today. “When Medicare was rolled out in 1966, there were no computers. More than 20 million people were enrolled over six months. On index cards.”

Mokhiber still believes that only a single payer system would be as simple and secure as people desire: “With no co-pays. No deductibles. Single payer controls costs,” Mokhibher said. “No more deaths due to lack of health insurance. No more medical bankruptcies. Everybody in. Nobody out. Free choice of hospital and doctor.”

Another single payer advocate, Dr. Margaret Flowers, speaking through the Institute for Public Accuracy, indicated that the website problems will be nothing compared to the kind of disappointment that may come down the road.

Flowers had this warning: “Billions of public dollars and tremendous efforts are being spent to create new health insurance markets, advertise them, subsidize their products and actively solicit buyers for them. But the United States, as the only industrialized nation to use a market-based health care system, has already proved over the past 40 years that this system doesn’t work. It is the most expensive, leaves the most out and leads to poor health outcomes. It means that people only receive the health care they can afford, not what they need.”

But as a result of Obama’s deft politics, though single payer failed, we have the compromise–ACA, a middle ground approach to get less expensive health care to the uninsured.

Maybe some time down the road, when everyone, left and right, realizes that the source of inequities in health care comes from privatization, the country will get a Medicare-type single payer system for all.

Still, the compromise we’re getting next year is a significant improvement over what we had.

But that will happen only if enough young, healthy web-savvy people in their late 20s and 30s, Asian Americans amongst them, sign up in droves.

They’re the ones who do everything online and on the computer (and I mean everything) and just don’t want to do things the old way.

They’re the real lynchpin of the Affordable Care Act. And it’s the reason Obama likes to compare the cost of your ACA health care premium to no more than your cell phone or cable bill. Young people consider those their lifelines. And it’s precisely those young folks who are needed in the insurance pool to subsidize the older less healthy people–the ones with pre-existing conditions, who are flocking to the plan.

That’s just the way the free market works in insurance, and the reason why Republicans really should like this plan much more than they do. (But they don’t because they hate Obama more, hence their insistence in calling it “Obamacare.”)

And that’s why the website fiasco is more important than it should be. When the website fails so colossally, it’s a massive turnoff to the crowd ACA needs the most to succeed.

Look at any tech failure of yesteryear, and you usually have one chance to make a first impression.

Anyone remember the Microsoft Zune?

Now that failed the cool test. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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