DNC: It’s a myth that people can’t sign up for Obamacare because the website doesn’t work

DNC-logo-on_white-sq-250“Myth:  The website doesn’t work so people can’t sign up for health care even if they wanted to.”

—The Democratic National Committee, December 2013 on the “Your Republican Uncle” website

 

Overview

The federal exchange site will cause some users to miss deadlines for obtaining insurance.  The DNC holds back details it ought to know well.

The Facts

This myth-busting effort from the Democratic National Committee was added after yourrepublicanuncle.com went live Thanksgiving week, sometime after December 6, 2013.  After declaring it a myth that the website problems will prevent those seeking health insurance from obtaining it, the DNC gives its explanation:

The website is working for the vast majority of visitors, and thousands of American are signing up every day. But you can also sign up by calling 1-800-318-2596, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and every state has health care navigators who can provide unbiased information, answer your questions, and help you sign up!

 

The DNC offers two citations in support.  The first is the HealthCare.gov contact page, which features the phone numbers to use for signing up by phone as well as the numbers to find a health care navigator.  The second, also at HealthCare.gov, features options for finding local help with obtaining health insurance.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

The DNC’s citations may aid those seeking help signing up to receive health insurance, but they do not support the DNC’s claim that the federal exchange website “is working for the vast majority of visitors.”  A working website serves as the key to refuting a Republican uncle who claims a non-working website keeps people from obtaining insurance.  If the website works, nothing else is needed.  If it doesn’t, then it matters whether Americans may bypass the website by using the phone to enroll.

How’s that website working out?

wonkblog ACA signups Jan

Washington Post Wonkblog graph

The federal insurance exchange website has suffered from well-publicized difficulties.  During the site’s first month, October 2013, many suffered difficulty even logging on.  Those fortunate enough to log on often experienced problems signing up.

The website’s performance picked up in November and December.  Visitors had an easier time logging on and entering personal information.   The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services reported increasing sign-ups, bringing the total number above 2 million for the individual market by the end of December.

The increase wasn’t only due to website improvements.  The Obama administration contributed by extending statutory deadlines for obtaining insurance.

The butt of the problem:  the back end

Improvements to the federal exchange website’s customer experience mask another set of problems with the “back end” of the website.  The back end of the federal website communicates with insurance companies and government sites such as the IRS.

Here’s how Bloomberg News described the problem on Dec. 9:

There’s no way to tell how many people who think they enrolled for health insurance through the U.S. Obamacare exchange actually have, after about 1 in 4 files sent to insurers had garbled and incomplete information.

The data transmission errors have been reduced to 1 in 10 since Nov. 30, the government said on Dec. 6.

 

Applicants whose data contained fatal errors may not end up with insurance by the final deadline, whenever the administration decides that occurs.  If just 10 percent of the claimed 2 million applicants fail to get insurance because of back-end website errors, then 200,000 Americans will have failed to sign up because the website doesn’t work.  That’s something more than a myth.

The back end presents a challenge since the exchange website needs to cross-communicate with varied computer systems, many of them coding their data differently.

Sign up by phone?

The DNC hints that applicants have the option of bypassing the exchange website, choosing their plans over the phone instead.  Indeed, applicants can bypass the front end of the website by phone, but all applications must eventually funnel into the computerized system.  Phone applications are either entered into a computer directly—facing the same potential front-end difficulties—or else applicants’ information is recorded on paper forms for later entry into the system.

ABC News reported the problem back in November of 2013 (bold emphasis added):

A series of internal Obama administration memos obtained exclusively by ABC News reveal for the first time how dysfunction with HealthCare.gov has upended the entire Affordable Care Act enrollment process, including applications by paper and phone that officials have been pushing as more reliable alternatives.

 

So even if applying by phone allows applicants to avoid front-end difficulties with the website, their application remains vulnerable to problems at the back end.

The variety of problems have made it difficult to obtain reliable estimates of how many have successfully signed up for insurance through the exchange website.

Half True?

Website problems do not prevent all applicants from obtaining insurance through the federal exchange.  Probably millions will successfully sign up by the administration’s deadline.  At the same time, many thousands who tried to get insurance through the exchange will end up without insurance at the deadline thanks to the website’s problems.  So does that make it half true that it’s a myth people can’t sign up for Obamacare because of the website?

We don’t buy the concept of half truth.

The DNC’s claim is either true of false if we give it a specific meaning.  If the DNC is saying it’s a myth that any people at all can’t sign up for Obamacare because of website problems, then the statement is simply false.  If the DNC is saying that most people can sign up successfully through the website, then the statement is likely true.

The question is, what meaning does the DNC intend to convey?

We think the DNC’s emphasis on the telephone alternative suggests the DNC admits front-end problems with the website.  The DNC says the phone alternative makes it false that the website problems keep people from signing up for insurance.  But even if phone sign-ups avoid all front-end problems, which is unlikely, applications still must run the gantlet of back-end problems.

Summary

“Myth:  The website doesn’t work so people can’t sign up for health care even if they wanted to.”

False statement icon Missing Context icon One-Sideness Fallacy icon

Based on our conclusion about the DNC’s intent, the DNC’s claim is false.  It is not a myth that problems with the healthcare exchange prevent people from signing up for health insurance.  The DNC’s alternative method, signing up by phone, ends up with the same website front-end bottleneck and back-end problems.

We’re charging the DNC with leaving out important context.  We’re also charging the DNC with a fallacy of one-sidedness.  The DNC has little excuse not to know the depth of the federal exchange website’s problems.  The back-end problems with the website will end up keeping thousands of people from obtaining insurance by the statutory deadline, and very probably by any alternative deadline set by the administration.

 

References

The Democrat’s Guide to Talking Politics With Your Republican Uncle.” Yourrepublicanuncle.com. Democratic National Committee, Dec. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.

The Democrat’s Guide to Talking Politics With Your Republican Uncle.” Yourrepublicanuncle.com. Democratic National Committee, Dec. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.  (Internet Archive version from Dec. 6, 2013)

Kliff, Sarah. “Don’t Look Now, but Obamacare Might Just Hit a Sign-up Projection.” Washington Post Wonkblog. The Washington Post, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.

Radnofsky, Louise, and Christopher Weaver. “Health Sign-Ups Skew Older, Raising Fears Over Costs.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Goldstein, Amy, and Juliet Eilperin. “Obama Administration Quietly Extends Health-care Enrollment Deadline by a Day.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Pear, Robert. “Sign-Up Period Extended Again for Health Plan.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Ritger, Clara. “HHS Asks Insurers for Leniency in Obamacare’s Opening Months.” NationalJournal.com. National Journal Group Inc., 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Pugh, Tony. “WASHINGTON: Insurers Extend Payment Deadline for Jan. 1 Obamacare Coverage.” McClatchyDC.com. McClatchy DC, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Dwyer, Devin. “Obamacare Paper, Phone, Web Apps ‘Stuck in the Same Queue,’ Memos Note.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 04 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Cunningham, Paige Winfield. “‘Glitches’ Hit Obamacare Paper, Phone Applications Too.” POLITICO. POLITICO LLC, 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Roy, Avik. “How Many Healthy People Are Signing Up For Obamacare? The White House Won’t Say.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Leave a reply here or on our Facebook page

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.