Those who compare the Obamacare website failure to hurricane Katrina don’t seem to see the obvious flaw(s) in their “logic”.
Friday was the day when the world came down on top of President Obama—or, rather, theTimes did. In a scathing editorial, the Grey Lady lambasted the “incompetence of the administration in ushering in reforms that millions have been waiting for.” On the paper’s front page, one of its White House correspondents, Michael D. Shear, wrote that the “disastrous rollout” of the Affordable Care Act not only threatens the rest of the President’s agenda, “but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.”
In writing about the rollout of the A.C.A., I, too, have used the term “disaster.” Referring to the over-all situation, I’ve also said that “it’s a mess.” But Hurricane Katrina? I can easily imagine why Republican politicians are making the comparison—it casts President Obama in a terrible light. But does it really stand up? I don’t think so, and here are six reasons why:
1) Obama got out of Air Force One: Whatever you think of it, and I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, the A.C.A. is a historic and proactive piece of legislation that was intended to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise of universal health care. Even if it were to fail, and it’s far too early to reach any conclusions about what its ultimate results will be, the President would deserve credit for tackling an issue that’s been festering for half a century or more. He saw a problem and walked toward it rather than away from it. And now that things have gone awry, he’s taken responsibility. “(T)hat’s on me,” he said on Thursday, while introducing some emergency fixes that will allow some purchasers of individual insurance policies to keep their existing plans.
Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, and such calamities are tough for any government to handle. The most damaging charge against President Bush isn’t that the rescue operation encountered difficulties—that was inevitable—but that he failed to take proactive steps. Rather than exercising leadership and mobilizing the nation’s resources to rescue a city that was literally underwater, he was passive, leaving the job to an underfunded and badly managed federal agency. To this day, one of the most damaging images of his Presidency is of him flying over New Orleans on Air Force One, looking out of the window at the devastation below, but not ordering the plane to land.
2) Nobody’s been killed: This one, I owe to Slate’s admirable Matt Yglesias. As he pointed out on Friday morning, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people died during and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. How many would have been saved if the federal rescue program had been more effective, it is impossible to say. But the number almost certainly isn’t zero. In the “disaster” that is the A.C.A. rollout, a hundred and six thousand Americans have signed up for new individual insurance policies, and more than a hundred and sixty thousand have signed up for Medicaid. Those figures are a lot lower than the administration had been hoping for, but, as far as I know, they haven’t proved fatal to anybody.
3) This time, there is no “Brownie”: To put it kindly (very kindly), the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t appear to have done a good job of building and testing Healthcare.gov. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services, the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for the Web site, is run not by one of President Obama’s cronies but by Marilyn Tavenner, a veteran of the health-care industry who spent twenty-odd years working for Hospital Corporation of America. And Henry Chao, the C.M.S. official who oversaw the actual construction of the site, is a twenty-year veteran of the agency. While they haven’t covered themselves in glory, both appear to have been reasonably qualified for their jobs, which was hard to say about Michael Brown, the lawyer and friend of President Bush who was serving as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Katrina hit, and who was the unfortunate subject of the president’s immortal remark, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
4) The war in Iraq is over: Hurricane Katrina struck in August, 2005, just as the insurgency in Iraq was entering its bloodiest phase. At that juncture, the White House was already facing heavy criticism because of its handling of the conflict. The pictures of death and destruction in New Orleans, which conveyed the impression that the federal government was powerless to intercede here at home, did untold damage to the Bush Administration’s reputation. It was almost as if it couldn’t do anything right.
The situation now is a bit different. While the Obama Administration faces a divided Congress, which makes it very difficult to pass any legislation, the White House has just won a significant political victory in the showdown over the budget and the debt ceiling. The country is at peace, and the President, until very recently, had high personal approval ratings. In the past few weeks, these have fallen sharply, which is hardly surprising. But at least his problems are restricted to one area: the A.C.A. There isn’t the pervasive sense of crisis, borne out of the war in Iraq, that blighted Bush’s second term.
5) Despite it all, Healthcare.gov appears to be fixable: Large-scale public-sector technology projects are often fraught with problems—something the Administration should have anticipated. In the worst-case scenarios, entire systems sometimes have to be scrapped and replaced with something better. That’s what happened in Britain a few years ago, when the National Health Service tried (and failed) to put patient records online. In this case, though, none of the experts inside or outside the Administration I’ve seen quoted have suggested that such an outcome is likely.
This looks like a repair job rather than a start-over project. It may take a while, and there’s likely to be some gremlins even after the Administration’s self-imposed deadline of December 1st. But, as far as I can make out, none of the individual problems that have been uncovered are insurmountable. It’s largely a matter of building additional capacity on the front end of the system—some of this has already been done—and repairing bugs on the back end, which had been sending incomplete and inaccurate information to insurers. This work, too, seems to be progressing.
6) The “disaster” narrative doesn’t yet represent the final cut: Once the Bush Administration had failed the immediate test of responding to Hurricane Katrina, there wasn’t much it could do to change the story. The victims were dead. The pictures from the Louisiana Superdome and other locales were lodged in the consciousness of the American public. Rebuilding a region hit by a natural disaster is, by its nature, a long and largely thankless task. But fixing Obamacare is different. If, and it’s a big if, in the next couple of weeks the Administration can get Healthcare.gov working fully—or even close to fully—it will make a big difference to how the A.C.A. is represented in the media and viewed by the American public.
At the moment, the people featured in news stories are mostly the losers from the reform—young, healthy people who want to keep their cheap, and sometimes inadequate, insurance policies. Meanwhile, many of the potential winners from the reform—families who earn low to moderate incomes, older people, people with preëxisting conditions who struggled to get any insurance—can’t get onto the Web site to enroll in new policies. If this changes, the media narrative will change with it. Reporters will find more people who like their new policies, and the generous subsidies that come with them. More attention will be paid to the state insurance exchanges, some of which are working pretty well. And some diligent journalists will even report on the steady rise in the number of people enrolling in Medicaid, many of whom didn’t have any insurance at all previously.
Taken together, these things could have a big impact on how Obamacare is perceived. Whatever happens, the rollout will be looked back upon as a big screwup. But the story’s ending has yet to be written.