By Sally C. Pipes
One thousand two hundred and eighty-nine days.
That's how long the Obama Administration had to set up the 36 online health insurance exchanges it's operating wholly or in partnership with states. Surely three-and-a-half years is enough time to establish websites with at least basic functionality, right?
Not so much. Obamacare's exchange rollout has been disastrous. The federal government's Healthcare.gov website is still unusable for most browsers. By last count, fully 47 state exchange sites were generating frequent error messages.
It's the dawn of a new era of government-dominated health care -- brought to you by the Obama Administration.
Even the parts of the exchanges that work are confusing. For instance, here's the prompt that pops up when visitors try to set a username: "The username is case sensitive. Choose a username that is 6-74 characters long and must contain a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-."
The collective experience of exchange users is best summarized by Michael Hoffman, a Florida man who unsuccessfully attempted to enroll over half a dozen times. "I was pretty frustrated," Hoffman said. "It's disappointing when you have higher expectations."
Federal officials have stated that heavy traffic is to blame for technical difficulties -- that the exchanges are "too" popular. Healthcare.gov -- the federal government's main portal -- received 4.7 million unique visitors over its first 24 hours of operation.
But much of that figure is comprised of reporters, healthcare wonks, and curious onlookers -- not exactly the target demographic of uninsured adults looking to buy coverage.
Only a tiny slice of visitors is actually enrolling in health plans. According to one industry rep, "Very, very few people that we're aware of have enrolled in the federal exchange. We are talking single digits."
Single digits might be optimistic. Just one percent of the applications to federal exchanges contain "enough information to enroll the applicant in a plan," according to CNBC. California's exchange has registration conversion of less than one percent. Of the 28,000 visitors to Connecticut's Access Health site in early October, just 167 applied for a plan.
Reporters have been so desperate to find even one person who's successfully purchased coverage through the exchanges that they actually ditched basic fact-checking standards once they thought they found one.
Last month, Chad Henderson, a mid-twenty-something Georgia resident, tweeted out that he'd bought exchange-based insurance. Within a matter of hours, Chad was interviewed by dozens of national news outlets and became the de facto poster boy for Obamacare.
Turns out Chad was faking it. Further investigation revealed that he'd only submitted an application, not actually enrolled.
The Obama Administration has tried to explain away the exchanges' high-tech hiccups by likening them to those experienced by Apple last year, when it released its flawed Maps application for the iPhone.
"We're building a complicated piece of technology," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "Hopefully you'll give us the same slack you give Apple."
But that's a misleading analogy. Employees at private companies are usually held to account when they screw up. Scott Forstall, the lead designer of the Maps app, eventually got axed by Apple.
Government doesn't work that way. There's no such accountability. No one is going to be fired or demoted because of the exchanges' massive flaws.
The problems with the exchanges don't stop at basic programming incompetence. They're also vulnerable to fraud and abuse. "The root problem is that the health insurance exchange isn't made up of a single, authoritative site where people can go and register for coverage," explains Christopher Budd of Trend Micro, an internet security firm.
So it's easy to create a fake exchange site to dupe online shoppers. One site billed as the "Pennsylvania Health Exchange" turned out to be run by a private insurance broker.
The exchange rollout has gone worse than even Obamacare's fiercest critics could have predicted. Patients are going to be very upset once they discover that many of the new plans will not cover the same number of doctors and hospital networks as pre-Obamacare policies did.
The sites' multiplying glitches are only a preview of how health reform will disrupt our healthcare system. Welcome to Obamacare.
Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Taube Fellow in Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The Cure for Obamacare (Encounter 2013).