Unfolding, as it did, in perfect unison with the shutdown of the United States federal government, the formal rollout of Obamacare has easily been the most overreported underreported story of the last week.
Since October first, Americans without health insurance, or those merely dissatisfied with the insurance they already own, have been able to visit Healthcare.gov and do some shopping at the central marketplace of the so-called Obamacare “exchanges.” Simply enter your state of residence, your number of co-dependents, and a couple personal facts about your income and lifestyle (excluding pre-existing medical conditions, of course!) and the magical website will hook you up with a couple affordable health insurance packages, and possibly even some subsidies to help bring down the cost.
That’s the theory, at least. The practice, alas, has proven slightly more underwhelming.
The site is extraordinarily slow. Error messages are common. Drop-down menus in particular seem to never load properly. Tech support has been described as “Kafkaesque.” It’s getting to the point where making YouTube videos or live-blogging attempts to navigate Healthcare.gov has become a full-fledged meme, so much fun is being had at the poor site’s buggy expense.
On some level, the recepiton was perhaps inevitable. We are talking, after all, about the world’s largest government bureaucracy attempting to produce a simple, easy-to-use website for the world’s most web-savvy (if not web-spoiled) population. President Obama’s health secretary has already likened the post-release bitchiness to to the snark that always accompanies the release of a new Apple product, and to some extent that’s fair — a lot of Americans are probably being critical just to demonstrate their high standards of user interfaces and whatnot, particularly the programmer community, who’ve had a predictable lot to say about the site’s sloppy coding. But there’s are more substantial complaints, too.
One of the reasons lurid travels through the reeds of Obamacare have become such a stable source of vicarious entertainment is because very few Americans seem to be actually using the site. Though the White House has stated it will not be releasing user statistics on Healthcare.gov until November, this column in the London Guardian cites a survey in which only seven percent of Americans claim “actual first- or even secondhand experience” with the thing. Over at the London Daily Mail, meanwhile (why the British papers are all over this beat I have no idea), sources from within the federal health department have apparently leaked statistics claiming the total Obama care-assisted enrollment figure for week one is a measly 51,000. According to other reports, in some states the number of Americans who have successfully purchased health care through the site ranges from five to zero.
While some of the site’s boycotters are doubtlessly doing so for partisan reasons, others have likely been spurred to steer clear by media reports of users disappointed with the experience — particularly the vast, middle-class majority of Americans who already have health insurance and are too wealthy to qualify for cost-cutting subsidies.
It’s no longer very controversial to assert that the many fresh obligations imposed upon insurance firms by the President’s Affordable Care Act — particularly the ban disallowing the denial of customers based on pre-existing conditions and the mandate of comprehensive benefits all health insurance packages must now provide — will result in higher premiums by simple virtue that insurers need money coming in to churn more good stuff out. With this in mind, it seems the plans offered by the Healthcare.gov exchanges, with their adjusted, post-Obamacare costs, represent many Americans’ first glimpse of what government-regulated “affordable” health care actually looks like — and its a price tag they’d rather avoid. The uninsured, meanwhile, particularly the gaggle of so-called “young invincibles” who have never had to worry about health insurance one way or another until now, may have simply found the whole business of navigating the insurance market too complex and intimidating, particularly given the oft-repeated statistic that the Affordable Care Act’s fine for opting out of insurance ownership is a mere 95 bucks (at least in 2014).
Other folks, however, can’t be quite so indifferent. Particularly employees of firms like Trader Joe’s and Home Depot who have been explicitly booted from their employer’s health insurance plan on the upbeat assumption that opting into an Obamacare plan should represent “very little if any net cost to you,” in the words of the Trader Joe’s CEO. Yet if some of the early reporting on this front is to be believed, “very little” is proving to be highly subjective, with many newcomers to the marketplace aghast to find “affordable” monthly premiums that would take a bigger bite of their paycheque than their work plans ever did.
In any case, regardless of motive, the fact that not enough Americans are opting-into Obamacare at the moment could spell bad news for the program’s future. The Huffington Post has an excellent little FAQ-type article outlining 9 Valid Concerns We Can All Have About Obamacare, Without Thinking It Will Literally Bring Hell On Earth, most of which centre around fears that the thing might get stuck in some sort of negative feedback loop. The worry is that Obamacare’s perks, particularly its subsidies and expansion of Medicaid, will be over-exploited by the poor and sick, which will triggering ever-higher costs for the healthy and middle class, who will then get frightened out of wanting to participate in the system, triggering a lack of funding for the perks, and so on.
A buggy website, in other words, could soon prove to be the least of anyone’s worries.