Friday Talking Points -- Monkey Business

This may be the quotation of the week, from Representative Frank Pallone, describing the House "Obamacare Is So Very, Very Bad" hearings held this week.
10/25/2013 08:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"I will not yield to this monkey court!"

This may be the quotation of the week, from Representative Frank Pallone, describing the House "Obamacare Is So Very, Very Bad" hearings held this week. One immediately wonders whatever happened to the kangaroo courts of old -- too foreign a metaphor, perhaps? One is also immediately struck by the idea that Monkey Court would become an instant hit, if it were filmed for television, with live monkeys. I mean, just think of the possibilities!

Ahem. Sorry, it's been that kind of week.

It was, of course, laughable that Republicans now appear to be overly concerned with making the Obamacare exchange website work properly, when they've spent the past two years or so trying to sabotage the rollout by any means necessary. Which doesn't even include all the "kill Obamacare" votes, either. Republicans have blocked the money meant to be used to implement Obamacare, then they tried to block Health and Human Services from using different money to implement Obamacare, then they successfully intimidated the National Football League into not helping advertise the rollout, then they launched a state-by-state effort to force anyone helping to register people to get a "license" to do so, then they created a multimillion-dollar effort to convince people not to sign up for Obamacare (targeting the young and healthy) in a final effort to cause Obamacare to fail. So it's not like Republicans haven't been doing their best to create chaos and confusion around the rollout.

Sadly, while none of the Republican sabotage efforts really worked all that well (they were all designed to keep public interest down, but a major problem with the website rollout was indeed too much interest) it seems that the Obamacare website rollout has managed to be a disaster without any Republican help at all. The major problem? People with no real high-tech experience running an incredibly complex high-tech project. Software project management, as should now be painfully obvious to everyone, should not be attempted by rank amateurs.

The revelation that the fully-integrated system was only tested for two weeks before launch is the key to why the website has failed so badly. Two weeks is simply not enough time to run such tests. In fact, it's nowhere near enough time. Added to this was the fact that the main architecture of the user interface was radically changed in late September (to not allow "browsing" prices, before signing up), and you have the makings of the disaster that followed. Changing the basic user pathway through the website a week before launch? Insanity! Ask anyone who works in Silicon Valley, they'll tell you.

Software testing is not a glorious undertaking. It is performed by dedicated folks proud to be called "Software Quality Assurance Engineers." This is largely thankless work, because if the testers do their job perfectly, when the product is released, nobody notices. It's only when the bugs show up afterwards that people notice. But testing always is the department to take it on the chin when scheduling the whole project. The most important testing (as is now obvious) is the testing that happens at the very end. But when all the other departments "slip" their schedules, usually the target end date of the project remains the same. This means that the time for testing (being last on the schedule) shrinks and shrinks, throughout the project's lifespan. I have no idea if this is what happened with the Obamacare website, but it's a pretty safe bet because this pressure always exists, on pretty much every software project.

The testers themselves have a saying (or, at least, they did awhile ago -- the example may have been updated by now) to warn against shrinking the testing schedule in order to meet some arbitrary release date: "The Ford Pinto was released six months ahead of schedule. Does anyone remember that today, or do they remember the major design flaw instead?" [for our younger readers, please do a web search on "Pintos exploding" or perhaps "Pinto gas tank" to fully understand this metaphor].

The Obama administration has just (belatedly) announced that the Obamacare exchange website will be fully operational and smoothly running by late November. This gives them a month to fix all the problems and turn the story into "Obamacare site now fixed!" in the media. This will be a tough job, no doubt, on both the technological side and the public relations or political side. The Republicans are going to have a field day in the meantime, so look for calls for H.H.S. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign to mount from their side of the aisle. As well as continuing episodes of the smash new C-SPAN hit Monkey Court.

If all this has just been too much for you this week, we offer up as a public service either some toilet-humor satire, or an overdose of saccharine. The first comes from the pages of The Onion, and is worth it for the accompanying photo alone: "Heroic Broken Sewage Pipe Floods Congress With Human Waste." That one's pretty self-explanatory, really. And the second (which falls into the "just because" category) is a downright hilarious video of two cats playing "Pattycake," which (like all the best art films) is in French with English subtitles. Take your choice, for a laugh, if you can't stand watching another round of Monkey Court.


It was a pretty thin week on the ground for nominees for the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, we have to say. President Obama did the best job he could to apologize and promise fixes for the Obamacare website, but that's going to be the focus of the talking points, so we only mention it here in passing.

Instead, we're going to award the MIDOTW to Frank Pallone, the Democrat calling "monkey court" on the Republicans in the House. Prior to being interrupted (which provoked the "I will not yield to this monkey court" moment), Pallone had this to say: "I started out in my opening statement saying there was no legitimacy to this hearing and the last line of the questioning certainly confirms that." He then went on to refute charges made by another committee member on the question of privacy, concluding: "So once again, here we have my Republican colleagues trying to scare everybody."

Pallone was given this opening because Republicans could not contain their questioning of the Obamacare website to the very real problems it has been having. Like they've been doing all along with anything to do with Obamacare, instead Republicans have been resorting to lies and false claims in order to (as Pallone pointed out) "scare everybody."

Republicans really shouldn't need to resort to such inane tactics, at this point. But they couldn't help themselves, it seems. As Kurt Vonnegut might have said, what next resulted was a welcome to the monkey house.

For providing such a memorable quote to describe the proceedings, this week's MIDOTW goes to Representative Frank Pallone.

[Congratulate Representative Frank Pallone on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Speaking of folks unafraid to say things in politics, we have to at least hand out a (Dis-)Honorable Mention to Representative Alan Grayson this week. Grayson wrote what can only be called a diatribe against the Tea Party this week which accused them of racism and ended with: "One could go on and on, because there is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation. If the hood fits, wear it."

This is known as tarring with an awfully broad brush, which is why a Democratic member of Congress never should have written it. Are some Tea Partiers racist? Undoubtedly. But then again, so are some Democrats. Just because there are bigots in the ranks doesn't mean automatic condemnation of an entire group of people, though. These are the tactics which Democrats decry Republicans for using, folks.

But our real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week goes to none other than Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Now, we realize Sebelius is taking a lot of heat right now and will take even more heat next week when she testifies on a special sweeps edition of Monkey Court, and we also don't enjoy piling on a Democrat when most of the others in the pile are Republicans, but in this case we feel it is deserved.

Did Sebelius intentionally wreck the Obamacare website? That's highly doubtful. After all, it won't just be Obama's legacy achievement, it will also be hers as well. Was Sebelius directly responsible for making the disastrous last-minute decisions which contributed mightily to the mess? That is unknown, but one would assume not. Such decisions were likely delegated down the chain of command, with Sebelius doing nothing more than oversight of the whole process.

The key question (already being demanded by Republicans) is: should Sebelius resign? To that we answer a qualified "No," at this point. We would indeed like to see some heads roll at H.H.S., but the ones who should be fired are the ones who made the disastrous decisions in the first place. The decision to keep the software project management in-house rather than to contract it out to someone who knew their elbow from their rear end in the software field would be the first firing opportunity. The other decisions which should merit a pink slip for somebody: squeezing the integration testing down to a laughably inadequate two weeks, and whatever bonehead decided to change the way users browse the site mere days before the rollout. All of these decisions, we strongly feel, demand immediate termination on the grounds of rank incompetence.

If -- and only if -- it is shown that Sebelius herself was instrumental in any of these decisions, then she should indeed do the right thing and step down. But my guess is that these decisions were made further down the ladder than the Secretary's office.

Nonetheless, while we are not calling for Sebelius to resign at this point, we also feel that as the titular head of the department and as a manager who should have been paying close attention to what was going on, Secretary Sebelius certainly is deserving of a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. To say the Obamacare exchange website -- now almost four weeks old -- was "disappointing" would be to severely understate the situation.

[We hear that the Health and Human Services website is experiencing some heavy traffic (ahem), so perhaps you should send feedback about Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to her boss, via the White House contact page, to let him know what you think of her actions.]


Volume 279 (10/25/13)

Before we begin the talking points, we have two other bits in the news that didn't seem to fit anywhere else. The first is the story of a train passenger eavesdropping on the former head of the National Security Agency, while on a train. Michael Hayden was giving an interview (as an anonymous source) on his cell phone, and a fellow passenger had some fun tweeting about it. Turn about is fair play, eh? Don't like your calls overheard? Well, buddy, that's because nobody does.

Our second news item is quite possibly the funniest political quote of the week (even topping "monkey court"). Rand Paul was asked about the "Kentucky Kickback" recently -- the money included in the budget deal which pays for a dam project on a river bordering Paul's home state of Kentucky. Paul's answer to the question was classic: "It's one of these things where we're damned if we do, damned if we don't -- no pun intended."

OK, Senator Paul -- that was pretty funny, even we have to admit! Pun not intended my sweet patootie....

OK, enough monkey business. This week was a tough one for Democratic talking points, since any rosy predictions of a better future for the Obamacare exchange website would have been roundly denounced by the other side. President Obama did the best job he could on Monday, giving a speech which basically begged America for more time to get it right before making up their minds.

It was a tough sell, but as stated the president did a pretty good job of trying to refocus attention from the website's problems to the bigger picture of Obamacare itself. So, from the transcript of Obama's remarks this week, here are the best seven talking points for other Democrats to use.


   Obamacare is not just a website

This one is important, which is why Obama repeated it during his address. The website's problems -- no matter how bad they are -- are not fundamental problems with the Affordable Care Act itself. Separating these in people's minds is important.

But before I do that, let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website. It's much more. For the vast majority of Americans -- for 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance through your employer or Medicare or Medicaid -- you don't need to sign up for coverage through a website at all. You've already got coverage. What the Affordable Care Act does for you is to provide you with new benefits and protections that have been in place for some time. You may not know it, but you're already benefiting from these provisions in the law.


   A big group plan

This is quite possibly the best explanation of the Obamacare exchange idea I've ever heard. One wonders why such language hasn't been used by the president for years, in fact, because it is such a great way to frame the issue. Providing the statistic at the end just adds icing to this cake.

And the idea is simple. By enrolling in what we're calling these marketplaces, you become part of a big group plan -- as if you were working for a big employer -- a statewide group plan that spreads risk between sick people and healthy people, between young and old, and then bargains on your behalf for the best deal on health care. What we've done is essentially create a competition where there wasn't competition before. We created these big group plans, and now insurers are really interested in getting your business. And so insurers have created new health care plans with more choices to be made available through these marketplaces.

And as a result of this choice and this competition, prices have come down. When you add the new tax credits that many people are eligible for through the law, then the prices come down even further. So one study shows that through new options created by the Affordable Care Act, nearly 6 in 10 uninsured Americans will find that they can get covered for less than $100 a month. Think about that.

Through the marketplaces, you can get health insurance for what may be the equivalent of your cell phone bill or your cable bill, and that's a good deal.


   No sugarcoating it

This, of course, was crucial: admit the problem. Don't brush it under the rug or otherwise pretend it doesn't exist. Obama had to do this, and he repeated the fact that he's frustrated later in the speech as well.

But the problem has been that the website that's supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am -- precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work. I want the checkout lines to be smooth. So I want people to be able to get this great product. And there's no excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed.


   Tech surge

Also crucial was the message that the White House is not only aware of the problem, they are actively working on fixing it.

[W]e are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner. We've got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address the problems. Experts from some of America's top private-sector tech companies who, by the way, have seen things like this happen before, they want it to work. They're reaching out. They're offering to send help. We've had some of the best I.T. talent in the entire country join the team. And we're well into a "tech surge" to fix the problem. And we are confident that we will get all the problems fixed.


   A workaround is in place

In the software industry, a "workaround" is a method of somehow getting around the buggy part of the program. If users can manage to work around a problem, then that is obviously better than not having such an option. Of course, in this case, the workaround is to give up on the software entirely, but still....

We've also added more staff to the call centers where you can apply for insurance over the phone. Those are already -- they've been working. But a lot of people have decided first to go to the website. But keep in mind, these call centers are already up and running. And you can get your questions answered by real people, 24 hours a day, in 150 different languages. The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that -- 1-800-318-2596. Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers, although I admit that the wait times probably might go up a little bit now that I've read the number out loud on national television.

But the point is the call centers are available. You can talk to somebody directly and they can walk you through the application process.... Once you get on the phone with a trained representative, it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual to apply for coverage, about 45 minutes for a family. Once you apply for coverage, you will be contacted by email or postal mail about your coverage status.


   We have not forgotten you

This is a very personal message to people who have experienced problems, and was also a necessity. Rather than feeling left out in the cold, Obama promised people that followups would happen to fix the problems people have already experienced. This goes a long way towards building confidence that nobody's going to be forgotten in the process.

And finally, if you've already tried to apply through the website and you've been stuck somewhere along the way, do not worry. In the coming weeks, we will contact you directly, personally, with a concrete recommendation for how you can complete your application, shop for coverage, pick a plan that meets your needs, and get covered once and for all.


   Remember the way things used to be?

This is another bit of framing that Obama should have been using all along. Because people will forget how things used to be -- and they really need to be reminded of what is different under Obamacare.

In fact, even with the website issues, we've actually made the overall process of buying insurance through the marketplace a lot smoother and easier than the old way of buying insurance on your own. Part of the challenge here is that a lot of people may not remember what it's like to buy insurance the traditional way.

The way we've set it up, there are no more absurdly long application forms. There's no medical history questionnaire that goes on for pages and pages. There's no more getting denied because you've had a pre-existing condition. Instead of contacting a bunch of different insurers one at a time, which is what Janice and a lot of people who are shopping on the individual market for health insurance had to do, there's one single place you can go shop and compare plans that have to compete for your business. There's one single phone number you can call for help. And once the kinks in the website have been ironed out, it will be an even smoother and even easier. But in the meantime, we will help you sign up -- because consumers want to buy this product and insurance companies want to sell it to you.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on Huffington Post

Full archives of FTP columns:

All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank