I just got off a sort of maddening press briefing call with the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which was responsible for developing the troubled Obamacare website.
The call was supposed to be an " update on Marketplace operations." And they did tell us that 700,000 Americans have now applied for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges.
But mostly, CMS spokeswoman Julie Battaille dodged questions and declined to disclose new information.
- Battaille claimed not to know how many of those applications came from the 36 states that do not operate their own exchanges (meaning consumers are supposed to buy coverage by navigating HealthCare.gov). How is CMS figuring out a total number of applications if not by adding together reports from state exchanges and information from the federal exchange? If they won't disclose the federal-only number, it's presumably because it's embarrassingly low and they don't want it publicly known.
- Battaille wouldn't say who, aside from Jeff Zients, is involved in the "tech surge" that is supposed to bring in bright private sector tech talents to help fix the exchange. Ezra Klein noted yesterday the administration's silence on this question, leading him to wonder whether " the scope of the surge is less impressive, and more insider-focused, than the administration is implying." Is the tech surge just a PR strategy to demonstrate action on the website's problems without having to give out more detail about them?
- She wouldn't say when CMS expects that the site will be working properly.
- Twice, she declined to answer a question about whether Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was aware of the system's problems before launch.
- She continued to emphasize website problems related to traffic (and therefore, vast consumer demand that demonstrates how great Obamacare's benefits are) when reports in many outlets, including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, have relied on anonymous insurance industry sources to suggest that there are major problems in the exchange system's backend, including providing incorrect application information to insurers, that aren't related to traffic.
The last point is what particularly drives me nuts. Most of the best information we have about what's wrong with HealthCare.gov has come from anonymous private-sector sources that don't want to talk on the record because they don't want to annoy the administration. Why doesn't the Obama Administration level with us, tell us exactly what they know to be wrong with their IT infrastructure, and give concrete guidance about what they are doing to fix it?
The administration is still behaving like it is trying to get Obamacare enacted, and therefore its top public relations task is to bury negative stories about the law and emphasize the upside, like heavy consumer interest. But this is a mistake. Obamacare is already the law, and its long term political success is going to be determined by its substantive policy success — including whether consumers are able to sign up and get the health coverage they want.
There's no reason not to level with the public right now, unless the truth is so horrible and the website is so un-fixable that Obama administration officials can't bring themselves to discuss the matter publicly. I suspect that's not the case. But I'd feel better if they stopped trying to sell the line that the issue here is basically a great product whose website is getting overwhelmed by intense interest, and started speaking frankly about what's wrong and how they're fixing it.
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