Plans B, C, and D? The New York Times reports that weeks of work–and 5 million lines of code– may be needed to get the federal Obamacare exchanges running “smoothly.” Meanwhile, columnist-of-the-hour Megan McArdle notes once again that the administration has fewer weeks to spare than many say: It’s true that “open enrollment” ends on March 31, but you will need to get a policy by February 15 to avoid the law’s penalty (1% of your income!).
But McArdle pooh-poohs what seems to be one obvious Plan B fallback for the White House–namely downplaying the website and enrolling people via telephone.
“[T]the computer systems at the call centers for states running the insurance exchanges are the same as the computer systems that consumers are having such a hard time with. A nice woman at a federal call center told me that (at least for the state of Florida, where my in-laws live) there is an alternate procedure: They can fill out a manual application in PDF format. But she also told me that it takes three weeks for that application to be mailed to your house. After you receive it, you check the application to ensure it’s accurate, and then mail it in. One to two weeks later, you will be notified of your subsidy eligibility. Then you can actually enroll in a plan, though she wasn’t quite clear on how that part would work — do you call back again?”
OK, three weeks is too long. But it still seems easier to design a faster, manual call-in center alternative enrollment system than to fix the Obamacare websites’ balky back end. For one thing, manual systems can often be sped up by simply adding lots of people. We know how to do that, right? (What’s the National Guard doing next weekend?) I can’t help but feel that FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins could make the call centers work from a card table in the hall outside Kathleen Sebelius’ office.
A second Plan B–Plan C, if you will–is hinted at in the NY Times article: Just tell people to buy their insurance directly from the insurance companies. That’s how people buy auto insurance in states where that is mandatory. Let the companies advertise, enroll people on their own and bug the federal government about the subsidies on their own time. Advertising is something insurance companies can presumably ramp up quickly. Wouldn’t they have a big incentive to go to where the young, healthy people are and sign them up?
This would be an ideological defeat for the Democrats–admitting the government can’t get the exchanges running, and calling on the private sector to rescue it. But that’s better than losing the dream of universal health insurance to a “death spiral” in which nobody signs up except sick people, causing rates to skyrocket and the whole scheme to collapse. It’s less embarrassing for Obama than calling on Mitt Romney to come rescue it.
Actually, you know, now that you mention it, that’s not such a bad idea either. …