Since it’s the holiday shopping season, imagine for a moment that Amazon (AMZN) could only fulfill your purchase requests 80% of the time. If their servers were overloaded, you’d get a message inviting you to come back later. Amazon would even offer to send you an alert when peak traffic was over, so you could finish your order with minimal chance of disruption.
What would you do? Log off and try again later? Put your smartphone near the bed so you could get up at 3 am, when the all-clear arrived and the site said it was a good time to finish your order? Right. You’d say so long to Amazon and probably never shop there again, while seeking a competitor able to get it right the first time.
Before the rollout of the Affordable Care Act revealed what a technical disaster it is, President Obama famously predicted the experience of applying for federally subsidized health insurance would be similar to making a purchase on sites such as Amazon. Obviously it’s not. But if Obama wants to further the comparison and perhaps redeem himself a bit, maybe he should mimic the way retailers try to fix a problem when their customers get hosed.
Is 80% really a fix?
As things stand now, the federal Obamacare website, healthcare.gov, meets an 80% standard, according to Obama administration officials. That means most people who visit the site can get through the process of applying for health insurance without a snafu. The other 20% are likely to encounter technical problems, or find the site isn’t equipped to handle complicated circumstances they may present. And there's now a new delay for small businesses, which won't have the ability to shop for online coverage for their workers through OBamacare until next November, 16 months later than originally planned. Just one month ago, Obama and other administration officials said the site would be “fixed” — without any modifiers such as “partially” — by November 30. Apparently it depends on what the meaning of “fixed” is.
For people without health insurance who are trying to get coverage through the new federal program, the deadline to enroll is December 15, if they want coverage to begin January 1. The Obama administration may end up having to shift those dates, but that might wreak havoc with an insurance system geared toward standardized deadlines. Either way, it seems likely the next big controversy involving Obamacare is going to involve people who miss the December 15 deadline because of the flawed website.
If Obama really wanted to mimic retailers such as Amazon, he might keep in mind that when something goes wrong with a retail purchase, the best of them try to make their customers whole while perhaps throwing in a little something extra. Retail experts will tell you the most enlightened way to approach a customer complaint is to think of it as a chance to wow the consumer and give them a reason to come back again and again. Most people will forgive a mistake if they feel somebody listens to their problem, and fixes it. Throw in a bit of free merchandise and you’ve turned a lousy customer experience into a terrific one.
How to assuage the outrage
Okay, so it's not completely fair to compare a politically impaired government program such as Obamacare to a private-sector enterprise. Still, maybe the Obama administration could come up with ways to compensate people who encounter gridlock on healthcare.gov, especially those who may miss the December 15 deadline. How about this: A month of free health insurance for struggling applicants, since there must be extra cash laying around somewhere in the nearly $4 trillion federal budget. In fact, for the sake of fairness, the government could offer every American a free month of health insurance, whether you get coverage via the government or not, through some kind of tax rebate. That might assuage the outrage the whole country feels over the flubbed program, which has surely raised the national anxiety level.
On top of that, the administration could offer Obamacare vouchers to everybody who got snared in website gridlock, valid for one free medical test of your choosing during the next 12 months. Humor always works, so how about “I Survived Healthcare.gov” T-shirts for the first 1 million people frozen out by the site? (Tip: Make sure they’re Made in the U.S.A.)
As a show of solidarity with the little people, it might be nice to see Obama man the phones in the Obamacare hotline war room and field complaints from infuriated consumers himself. And as a tawdry, last-resort ploy (since all’s fair in love, war and marketing), the White House could send bits of presidential memorabilia, such as match books, coasters or pens emblazoned with the White House seal, to people with the worst Obamacare horror stories.
Does the government have the resources for all this? It depends just how big 80% turns out to be. The government is delaying a large promotional push meant to publicize Obamacare and encourage people to sign up. The administration has even reportedly told its healthcare allies, including Enroll America, to hold back on enrollment efforts over the holiday weekend in order to avoid a fresh website crash as new users flood the system. So, for now, the number of people getting hung up might be 20% of a fairly small number.
It’s hard to think of a retail blueprint for trying to discourage your own customers from checking out your merchandise; in the private sector, most companies that bad just go out of business.
That suggests a different message Obamacare customers might get someday: “Everything Must Go!”
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Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .