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Obamacare Glitches Are Real—and Matter Less Than You Think

Chris Schneider/Getty

Republicans spent Tuesday highlighting Obamacare’s opening day glitches. Democrats spent Tuesday highlighting Obamacare’s opening day successes.

Both spoke the truth. One truth matters more.

Obamacare’s new websites opened for business on Tuesday morning, just as they were supposed to do. And they promptly ran into problems, just as both critics and some advocates had predicted they would do. People who visited the websites had to endure long delays and in some cases they could not use the sites at all. 

The problems were not isolated and they were not trivial. They took place at sites that states were operating directly and at sites that the federal government was operating on behalf of states. Although at least two states, California and Kentucky, appeared to have launched their sites without major problems, overall it was a very rough day. And while federal officials blamed the problems on high traffic, the nature of the glitches suggests at least some of the sites still had some design issues—the kind that simply adding bandwidth might not fix.

In the days leading up to the launch, officials and contractors had been working furiously to get the technology right. In suburban Virginia, HHS staffers had all but moved in to the headquarters of the contractor building the new website. Expect them to stay a while longer.

President Obama, speaking at the White House, acknowledged the problems but suggested they were nothing out of the ordinary. When Apple has a problem launching a new product, he noted, nobody suggests shutting down Apple. He is absolutely correct. And what was true before remains true now: Most people won’t sign up for insurance until the last minute. Open enrollment lasts through the end of March and people have until the middle of December if they want coverage to start on January 1.

But the poor performance is a real cause for concern: If people get frustrated with poor website performance, they might not come back. Government officials have some time to work out the kinks. They don't have forever.

Still, Obama’s speech was also important because of the people standing behind him—a group of individuals who desperately wanted health insurance and, thanks to Obamacare, are starting to get it. This was the success story Democrats were touting on Tuesday. And they were right to do so.

The high traffic to Obamacare websites may have given Democrats a convenient way to spin the technological problems, but it was every bit the heartening, and validating, sign they proclaimed. Obamacare critics have spent the last few months and, really, the last few years dwelling on the law’s shortcomings, real and perceived—whether some young people would have to pay more for their coverage, whether regulations would force employers to change their behavior, and so on. But the single biggest impact of Obamacare is that many millions of people are finally getting access to decent, affordable insurance.

One of those people is Andrew Stryker, a 34-year-old freelance worker in Los Angeles—and one of the relatively few people in America who actually managed to get insurance on Tuesday. Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post told his story. He’s been paying $600 a month, through COBRA, to keep the benefits from his old job. Insurance companies wouldn’t sell him a new policy because his high blood pressure is a pre-existing condition. Stryker had trouble enrolling: California’s system was running slow. But he found a medium-priced plan, with sufficient coverage, for a fraction of what he’s paying now. "I’ve been watching the news about the government shutdown," he told Kliff. "Obviously three hours is a long time to wait, but it will save me over $6,000. For that, I would have waited all day."

Stryker has a lot of company. Consider what happened in Kentucky—a state where, despite the state's conservative political currents, leaders are setting a standard for how well Obamacare can work. According to officials there, the new “Kynect” website logged more than 57,000 unique visitors on Monday, with each person staying on the site for an average of 11 minutes. More than 2,000 people started applications and more than 1,200 completed them. In Arkansas, consumers filed into a help center at the University of Arkansas to find out about their new options. The online systems were down, making on-the-spot enrollment impossible. But, according to an account by David Ramsey in the Arkansas Times, people said they could wait until the system was working. "I've been healthy," Andre Martin, a minimum-wage worker who has never had insurance, told Ramsey. "I've been luckier than a lot of other Americans who haven't been healthy. It would feel better for me if I knew I had health insurance. Now that it is here, I'm going to take advantage of it because who knows, something could happen." 

This puts a very high burden on Obamacare critics, particularly the ones in Washington who have shut down the government—and now threaten default—if Democrats won’t agree to delay or defund the law. Buying health insurance on the individual market has always been frustrating and difficult. In most states, it has required filling out lengthy forms on medical histories—sometimes forcing people to recall specific doctor visits and treatments, with the threat of denial or policy cancellation even for inadvertent omissions. And that’s not to mention that insurance companies frequently took weeks and even months to process applications. Or the fact, that when the process was done, many people simply couldn’t get coverage because they had pre-existing conditions or simply couldn't afford the premiums.

Republicans and their allies are reveling in Obamacare’s implementation glitches. But their solution isn’t to provide people with some easier, quicker, and more reliable source of insurance. It’s to replace a system that has some early, fixable technological problems with no system at all. It’s to stop people from getting health insurance—and take it away from those, like Mr. Stryker, who are already getting it. That's a tough sell.

With every day, more and more people are discovering that Obamacare is a source of security—and a way to get the heath care they have always needed. This is the reality Republicans have always feared. Confronted with the reality of Obamacare, rather than the right’s distorted version of it, people will cherish it.