Inept techies and sneaky insurers are the bane of Obamacare

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

In their quest to gut Obamacare, Republicans have been given a big boost by two groups that were supposed to provide the new healthcare exchange a proper rollout: the contractors who built and the insurance companies who still dominate the American healthcare system.

Clay Johnson, chief executive of the Department of Better Technology, a firm that makes software for government, offers a straightforward explanation of why the federal healthcare exchange website has had so many problems. In an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday night, he said statistics indicated that 94% of federal IT projects with budgets higher than $10 million failed. The project had 20 times that amount of money to work with, which did not reduce the likelihood of a botched job.

“When you build a technology project, you need three things: you need money, you need time and you need talent,” Johnson said. “We had plenty of money and we had plenty of time, so …" He allowed the sentence to trail off unfinished with the obvious implication that the website had suffered because the people who built it were inept.

Apparently, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was unaware of the talent deficit among those she was nominally overseeing as the website headed to launch on Oct. 1. Nevertheless, in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, Sebelius took responsibility. “Hold me accountable for the debacle,” she said. “I’m responsible.”


Republican committee members grilled Sebelius like it was a Texas barbecue, but, interestingly, most of them spent less time picking at the flaws of the website than they did exploiting a new weakness in the Obama administration’s defenses. They cited the many examples of people being abruptly dropped from healthcare policies allegedly because of provisions in the healthcare law, something President Obama had promised would not happen.

The Affordable Care Act sets minimum coverage standards for insurance policies as a guarantee that people will not be duped into buying policies that fail to pay for key health services. This seems like a laudable piece of consumer protection. The problem is that some insurance companies are using it as an excuse to cancel many individual policies while offering to replace them with higher-priced coverage.

Obamacare supporters are pointing out that the insurance companies are running a bit of a ruse here. The insurers are failing to let those affected know there are actually cheaper alternatives, either within their own insurance companies or through other companies in the healthcare exchange. But, so far, that little ploy has not gotten much notice.

What has gotten notice is the discrepancy between what has happened and Obama’s frequently stated guarantee that no one would have to give up their current healthcare plan if they liked it. Obama did not lie, but neither did he acknowledge the possibility that insurance companies might pull out the rug from under their own satisfied policyholders.


Liberal criticism of the healthcare law as it was being written in 2009 centered on the fact that it left insurance companies as the powerful middlemen at the center of healthcare delivery in the United States. Obama and the authors of the law rejected the liberal critique because they saw no way to win passage of healthcare reform unless they could turn the insurance lobby into an ally, instead of an adversary.

Obama made a deal with a crafty devil back then and now he’s learning what kind of partner he has.