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Obamacare Glitches Mount As Launch Day Nears. Nobody Panic.

09/26/2013 04:05 pm 16:05:18 | Updated Sep 28, 2013
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

At almost the same time President Barack Obama was giving a big speech in Maryland touting his health-care reform law and mocking his critics, his administration had to admit to another delay in putting part of it in place.

Obamacare glitches are mounting, less than a week before people are supposed to start signing up for it. Is this the "train wreck" we were warned about?

"There are going to be some glitches as this thing unfolds," Obama said. "Somewhere around the country, there's going to be a computer glitch and the website's not working quite the way it's supposed to, or something happens where there's some error made somewhere."

Indeed. We learned on Thursday that companies won't be able to shop online for health benefits on the law's health-insurance exchange for small businesses in a bunch of states on Oct. 1, as promised. The Spanish-language version of the exchange websites also won't be able to take applications right away.

It's way too soon for anybody to lose their head. For starters, the open enrollment period is six months long, so individuals have until March 31 to pick a health plan and avoid getting hit with a tax penalty for remaining uncovered. Small-business enrollment lasts year-round. And no matter whether someone chooses a health insurance policy on Oct. 1 or Dec. 15, the earliest they can use it is New Year's Day.

These setbacks are embarrassing, but they don't mean individuals and small businesses can't buy health insurance next week. They just mean that, at first, some won't be able to use a website and will have to file paper applications or sign up by phone or through an insurance agent. That's an inconvenience, not a catastrophe.

Still, the latest revelations follow the earlier news that federal insurance exchanges won't be able to process Medicaid enrollment until November, that Colorado, Oregon, and the District of Columbia also are delaying online sign-up for individual insurance, and that Maryland and other states are rolling out their small-business exchanges later than planned.

The administration has previously cancelled or postponed other parts of the law, including a one-year delay in the requirement that large employers cover their workers or pay penalties.

These are real problems, and there could be more between now and next Tuesday, when insurance exchanges are supposed to open for the uninsured, people who don't get health benefits at work, and small businesses. The early days and weeks of sign-up probably will be rocky as the federal government, states, insurance companies and consumers journey into uncharted territory.

You couldn't be blamed for concluding that Obamacare just might be unworkable after all.

So what's going on here? The health-care system is fragmented and complicated to begin with, and Obamacare is built upon that foundation. The law Congress passed in 2010 asked the federal government, states and private companies to create a new system for buying and selling insurance from scratch and left a lot of questions unanswered. Obama signed this law, so its shortcomings are his responsibility.

Recall, though, what has happened in the three-and-a-half years since the law's passage: Congress has refused to allocate more money to ease implementation or come together to correct the law's known flaws. Republicans have waged a non-stop war to repeal, defund or otherwise undermine it. The Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality last year, but the years-long wait for a ruling caused many states to delay working on it. About two-thirds of the states left insurance exchanges fully or partially in the federal government's hands, more than anyone expected. And states like Florida are still actively trying to make sure Obamacare doesn't work.

The Obama administration insists that anyone who goes to the websites for the 34 states where the federal government is totally or partly in charge of the exchanges will be able to do everything they're supposed to do: comparison shop, find out if they're eligible for a subsidy, get the real prices for health insurance plans, and buy one. (If they speak English, anyway.)

This is key. And if that changes -- if there are more delays or the websites crash or no one picks up the phone at the call centers -- then the "train wreck" crowd will have their day, and Obama will be left to explain his broken promises and to convince the millions of people expected to use the exchanges to give him a second chance.

"I guarantee you, the opponents of the law, they'll have their cameras ready to document anything that doesn’t go completely right, and they'll send it to the news folks and they'll say, 'Look at this, this thing is not working,'" Obama said Thursday.

The White House believes there won't be too many people left unhappy by any problems they encounter over the next month because few consumers are expected to even start shopping right away. Past experience with other major health-care program rollouts -- like Romneycare in Massachusetts seven years ago -- supports that theory. Similar problems dogged the launch, eight years ago, of Medicare Part D.

But any more bad publicity about Obamacare plays into critics' claims and furthers the stereotype that government can't be trusted or get anything right. That's a black mark a huge new program may not be able to afford in its first days of existence.

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