President Romney's Obamacare Problem

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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If Mitt Romney had won last year's election, yesterday's Rose Garden press conference on a massive White House technological rollout would have been very different. Or would it?

Just 10 months into his first term, President Mitt Romney's signature domestic policy initiative, the Medicare Exchange, is a shambles. Designed to give elderly Americans a way to shop for insurance with their new government vouchers, which have replaced traditional Medicare, the exchange website at the core of the Republican program is an unusable mess.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Romney won the 2012 election on a promise to save Medicare, persuading voters that injecting competition could cut costs without reducing access to care. After first pledging to wait a decade, Vice President Paul Ryan and a chorus of deficit hawks convinced Romney to take advantage of the Obamacare exchange that was already being built, and start the vouchers in 2014.

Staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave Romney the same warnings they had given his predecessor, Barack Obama: An exchange was harder than it looked, especially for the federal government, and the website wouldn't be ready by October.

But Romney ignored them, insisting the initiative couldn't survive the bad press that would accompany a delay. It turned out they were right: Three weeks after the exchange opened, the Romney administration has ignored Democrats' demands to reveal how many people have successfully enrolled through the new Medicare exchange.

The website's failure threatens to derail Republican plans to privatize the program, which hinge on the exchange just as much as Obamacare before it. Democrats, sensing an opportunity to cripple Romney's presidency, produce daily press releases trumpeting the website's failure, while holding hearings in the House with ominous titles, such as "Medicare Exchange Implementation: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?" Democrats are using the website's troubles to push for a delay in the voucher program; Republicans insist their real goal is repeal.

Republicans are already starting to grumble that Romney should have acknowledged the similarity between the two plans. "Remind me, why did we say an insurance exchange would fail for Obamacare but work for Medicare?" asked a senior administration official. "It looks like some of our warnings about Obamacare were true. I'm as surprised as anyone."

Romney reacted to the controversy by pleading with Americans to give the website a chance. "We've got people working overtime," he said yesterday. "Nobody is madder than me."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net