Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sibelius took most of the blame for the Obamacare rollout debacle.
PERHAPS THE most difficult task for untrained news consumers is to see what is not there.
It is not an easy thing to learn. But here’s an example.
For more than six weeks, the story about problems with the federal web site created to enroll in health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act dominated the front pages – and the entire news cycle.
Now it is gone.
It may be a tad too early to declare victory – unforeseen problems may yet arise – but this was a completely foreseeable development.
With the president’s entire legacy at stake, all the resources of the federal government were harnessed. It would have been a fool’s errand to wager they would not succeed.
THE DISAPPEARANCE of the web site problems from the front page does not mean all is well. But it does mean that the situation is no longer newsworthy.
That this was entirely predicable can be seen in our story New healthcare web site flawed, but can be fixed published on Oct. 22.
The following six weeks – up until the self-imposed deadline of Nov. 30 – it seemed like the entire media universe was devoted to covering the slow-motion train wreck.
Even the president apologized – profusely.
The front page of the Healthcare.gov web site on Tuesday. Click image to enlarge.
But just over a week ago, the first signs emerged that the narrative was changing.
One of the earliest such stories can be found on the Bloomberg business web site in the report Obamacare Website Sign-Ups Said to Reach 100,000 in Month published on Dec. 2.
“About 100,000 people signed up for health insurance through the online federal exchange last month, a roughly four-fold increase from October even as a team of U.S. government and contractor programmers was fixing the troubled Affordable Care Act website, said a person familiar with program’s progress,” wrote Julianna Goldman.
While this was a vast improvement, it came with a qualification.
“The preliminary November numbers reflect individuals who successfully selected a plan,” the report said.
It did not include the many others who had successfully navigated the web site, browsing perhaps, educating themselves about the options available, without actually completing the enrollment process.
Another sign of improvement emerged just two days later on Politico in the story Enrollment surge on HealthCare.gov.
Carrie Budoff Brown wrote:
“About 29,000 people signed up for health insurance through HealthCare.gov on Sunday and Monday — a figure that surpasses the total for the whole month of October, an official familiar with the program told Politico.
“The quickened pace of enrollments came as the White House hit its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline to fix the troubled Affordable Care Act website.”
The interpretation was unmistakable.
“The preliminary numbers for the two-day period provide the clearest evidence yet that the federal exchange is on the mend. About 26,000 people selected a health plan during October and about 100,000 people did so in November, the official said.”
The story in The New York Times about the web site’s improvements on Tuesday. Click image to enlarge.
It was clear at this point that something was afoot.
A web search now reveals little current news about the problems with the web site – although it is far from perfect.
It’s just that the newsworthiness of the story is falling like a stone.
One had to delve all the way to Page 19 of the national edition of The New York Times on Tuesday to find the reason why in the story Health Care Exchange Is Vastly Improved, Users Say.
“A little over a week after the deadline that President Obama gave for fixing the federal health care exchange, the system is definitely working better, according to consumers and navigators interviewed in several states,” reported Lizette Alvarez and Jennifer Preston.
“The technical errors that had bedeviled visitors to the site for weeks seemed to have been tamed by the patchwork of hardware and software fixes ordered by the administration, and applicants were finally selecting health care plans under the president’s new law, the Affordable Care Act. By last week, the number of applicants who dropped a plan into their virtual grocery carts was climbing at a rapid clip.”
And the news is getting even better as time goes by.
“For the most part, though, the news for the beleaguered online exchange, which serves 36 states, is improving,” The Times reported.
“Since early December, the federal exchange website has run without crashing, officials said. In the first week of December, about 112,000 people selected plans — compared with about 100,000 in all of November and only 27,000 in October.
“Last week, more than half a million people created accounts on the federal website, according to people familiar with the health care project.”
The debacle has morphed into a good-news story.
It’s an unfortunate reality that good news is often trumped by disaster. It’s as much a reflection on what readers want as it is on editors’ judgment. Disaster creates drama, which creates exciting stories.
They will go on the front page or at the top of the news broadcast.
We have not heard the end of the Obamacare rollout disaster by any means yet. It is bound to haunt us at least through the next election cycle.
But the narrative has surely changed, just as predicted.
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