President Obama doubtless plans for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to be the keystone of his legacy. That calls for an examination of Obamacare’s largest wholly-owned subsidiary. Covered California turns out to be something of a misnomer, but it’s definitely a success at spending money.
Covered California has shelled out $454 million, nearly half a billion dollars, on a computer system. Covered California bosses also spent tens of millions on grants to promote the program, in addition to an $80 million television, radio and Internet marketing campaign. The system spent $1.3 million on a promotional video featuring flabby exercise guru Richard Simmons cavorting with a contortionist.
Covered California also served as a lucrative landing spot for washed-up government officials such as former state finance director Ana Matosantos. She bagged a deal of $20,000 a month to advise the state exchange on “financial sustainability and budgeting issues, and evaluation analytics.”
What all this technology and spending actually achieved was well documented by the Center for Health Reporting (CHR), which operates from the Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The CHR’s Emily Bazar found that the state health website, like its federal counterpart, was largely dysfunctional.
Those eager to sign up encountered waits of hours, days and weeks. Many requested that they not be contacted, but Covered California promptly gave their contact information to insurance agents, a blatant violation of privacy.
State politicians and Covered California bosses were not exactly up-front about any of the problems. Reporters and consumer advocates found that the state health exchange kept their communications from public scrutiny. And the system was hardly a model of efficiency.
When enrolled Californians reported income changes, they found that Covered California’s first action was to terminate their plan, and that getting a new one was difficult and time consuming. Covered California blamed this on the $454 million computer system. Bazar told Californians to “keep your fingers crossed” as they wrangled with the system.
The largest age group to sign up with Covered California was 55 to to 64 year-olds. When enrollees approached the Medicare age of 65 and sought to cancel their plan, they found that terminating coverage with the new state health exchange was practically impossible. The premiums kept coming, and this created tax problems.
Those on Medicare are no longer eligible for the tax credits under Obamacare. So as the CHR’s Emily Bazar noted, people could easily wind up owing money to the government. Again Covered California bosses blamed this problem on the computer system that cost nearly half a billion dollars.
As all this unfolded, anxious Californians remained uncertain whether or not they were actually covered. Los Angeles writer Juniper Ekman, for example, told Bazar that she received, count ‘em, 18 notices from Covered California in a single day. Fourteen of the notices said Ekman, along with her husband and daughter, were covered. But four said they were not covered.
In the San Francisco Bay Area one person received 40 notices in less than a month. In another case, four people in the same household received four different eligibility decisions in the same notice. When Emily Bazar sought answers from Covered California, bosses again blamed the problem on computers.
“This is the same system that has cost nearly half a billion dollars so far,” wrote Bazar, who does not work for Fox News. The system may have helped “multitudes” apply for health insurance, but “it also is responsible for countless glitches and widespread consumer misery.”
Jimmy Carter had his “misery index.” Now Obama has one too, and the misery is inherent in the system. So don’t forget to cross your fingers, knock on wood, and maybe grab that four-leaf clover.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow with the Oakland based Independent Institute and author of Exceptional Depravity, a new crime book, and Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry.