It’s not often that I get to offer some substantial criticism to an item of national significance. Usually when I offer thoughts about a national news item, it’s some wise-ass commentary on a presidential election or some buffoon in the national spotlight.
But when the discussion is about the newly enacted Obamacare, I feel as if I have some boots-on-the-ground experiences that entitle me to enter the discussion of how the new Affordable Care Act is working and whether or not the new law is truly the train wreck that its critics believe it to be. Just in case you missed it, Obamacare went into effect on October 1 — the same day the House of Representatives, incited by Senator Ted Cruz (Princeton in the Nation’s Service Class of 1992), shut down the federal government.
When the media finally got back to work the news was that the Obamacare website, www.healthcare.gov, was practically stillborn. Would-be applicants couldn’t log on. Those who did were confronted with glitches. Passwords were assigned but then became unusable. Young people, whose participation is needed to make the new healthcare act economically viable, would visit the site, be frustrated by it, and never return, the critics warned. The worse news: The New York Times wrote a huge story about the website and its many flaws.
But now the government is back in business, and we can all start wringing our hands over Obamacare. And so I will offer a few words based on personal experience.
First some thoughts on the experience of shopping for health insurance plans. As a small business owner for 27 years or so, I have had the great honor of enrolling in several different healthcare plans offered by the private sector.
It was never easy. Every few years the current provider would present rates to us that vastly exceeded the previous rate. So we would go shopping for a new provider. It was a bewildering experience. At one point I delegated the duties for selecting a new plan to the woman on the staff who wrote occasional stories about the retail shopping scene, a person who whom shopping was a sport. It was a nightmare even for her.
A year ago or so I gave up my publisher duties and became the editorial director of the company. When the inevitable health insurance changeover occurred I was just a customer. It was another nightmare. Should I take the base plan (“Lbty 20-40/70%/NG EPOc)”) or the buy-up plan (Lbty 20-40/80%/NG EPOc)? The base plan, with its “15/50%NF/OC/100/MO 125/150max/rx” prescription card vs. the buy-up, with its “14/35/75/OC/O/MO” prescription card? Do those descriptive phrases mean anything to you? Me neither.
Fortunately for me, and everyone else at our company, we have an insurance broker who advises us. In other words, we trust our salesperson. That’s just us. But imagine you are asking 48 million Americans who have not previously had health insurance to figure out these choices. That will never be easy.
Now my second piece of personal experience that may be relevant to the current conversation: Imagine that you are asking these people referenced above to make that same choice on a website. That’s right — put all the combinations and permutations of base plans and buy up plans, singles, couples, families, income levels, deductibles, prescription plans, co-pays, and whatever else, and ask a person to go one-on-one with a monitor and a mouse.
Now that really does sound like a train wreck, and it’s easy to blame the Obama administration for bad judgment and lack of preparation.
But in fairness I would point out that the Obamacare architects are only walking down the same tempting path that many others keep following. It’s the great promise of the Internet, that somehow an online infrastructure can replace the human hands and eyes that have guided our transactions.
We at U.S. 1 have tried it with our business directory listings, events calendar, and classifieds. It’s working, sort of, with companies submitting information for our business listings. I say “sort of” because it has worked largely because we have not let companies pick their own category. Instead we ask them to describe their business activity and then we assign them to a category. It also works because we edit all the submissions prior to adding them to the database that controls the directory.
Online submissions of events and classifieds also work, but only if the submitter E-mails us all the information and we then shape it into the appropriate format. Proselytizers for an all-interactive online world tell us we are short-sighted. All we need to do is to program a computer interface with smart algorithms that, for example, will challenge a submitter when they provide details of a tango exhibition but then assign the event to the “art” category. Sorry, we have answered too many calls for help to think that a computer can take our place anytime soon.
But the allure of the online, silver bullet solution persists. A day after Obamacare opened for business, Plainsboro Police unveiled a “citizen online police reporting system,” which “will allow the public to file reports on a variety of incidents, eliminating the need to call an officer or visit the police department.”
Thankfully, the announcement from the police notes that “the traditional approach of filing reports directly with a police officer is still available to those who would prefer not to use the online system.” Having seen the consequences of items posted online then coming back to bite us, we can envision scores of instances in which a citizen would be better off interacting in person than online. A dispute with a neighbor, for example, might be worked out more quickly by an informal visit from a diplomatic cop than by the filing of a written report.
Fortunately for Obamacare, the product is not the website. And, as the president himself had to remind the public this week, you do not have to sign up online. You can also do it by phone or in person, with a “navigator” trained to explain the choices. If the whole process (and the endless bickering over it by politicians and the media) gives you a headache, then take a couple of aspirin and call back in the morning.