• Don’t panic
    December 01,2013
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    Delay is not the worst thing that could happen to Vermont Health Connect or the federal health care website, which has floundered since its debut.

    Deadlines have been initiated at both the state and federal levels as balky websites are fixed. The Obama administration pushed back until next November the date when small businesses may use a portal to sign up on the federal website. The delay may blunt criticism from a crucial sector of the electorate and give technicians time to ensure that the system can handle the traffic.

    The Shumlin administration, meanwhile, has delayed until March 31 the mandate for individuals and small businesses to sign up for the Vermont program.

    Itís not clear if a different deadline ó which came last Monday ó may have created a new form of havoc. That was the date by which small businesses in Vermont were supposed to declare whether they were going to sign up for coverage through Vermont Health Connect, or were going to choose another option: signing up through one of the stateís two insurers, extending their existing plan or halting their coverage altogether. If they did not declare their intentions, they will have been signed up automatically for the plan among the 18 on the state exchange that most closely resembles their own coverage.

    The Vermont Chamber of Commerce was working hard before the Monday deadline to alert businesses to the deadline, but itís likely most businesses were unaware of it. The decision by Gov. Peter Shumlin to push back the mandate to March 31 may have led people to believe they neednít make a decision soon.

    If small businesses have been enrolled in plans against their will, that will create a new headache for the Shumlin administration, and there will be some sorting out to do. One hopes that the bureaucratic and Web-based confusion doesnít morph into something so tangled that sorting things out overwhelms the actual project of signing people up for health care coverage.

    Delays for fixing things are OK, even if they exact a political price. But supporters of health care reform must resist the impulse to panic. The kerfuffle about Mark Larson and his misleading statement to a legislative committee suggested a keen sensitivity to criticism by the Shumlin administration and a willingness to consider the usefulness of scapegoats.

    Larson is the commissioner for Vermont Health Access. He had been asked at a committee hearing if there had ever been any security lapses with Vermontís health care website. He said no.

    Then it came to light that there had been a lapse. Information from one user of the website had mistakenly become available to someone with the same user name.

    Oh, that. Larson said he had not considered that to be a security lapse, though on second thought he acknowledged it was. He was profuse with his apologies. House Speaker Shap Smith and Shumlin were stern with their scoldings. But, Shumlin said, he would not ask for Larsonís resignation.

    Resignation? Panic is not necessary. Larsonís mistake was regrettable, but supporters of health care reform must refrain from turning on their own in their nervousness about the new system and its problems. Somewhere up in the chain of command of the Obama administration there are probably people who ought to be eased out of their positions. A variety of circumstances has led to the premature unveiling of a system whose bugs are being worked out live and in public.

    The health care reforms under the Affordable Care Act represent a great test for the liberal idea that government has a role to play in smoothing out the rough edges of the capitalist system and making life livable for the great majority of people. Just as Social Security and Medicare emerged as valued vehicles of security for senior citizens, Obamacare is supposed to provide health care security for tens of millions of people who lack it because of the many shortcomings of our present system.

    Persistence, ingenuity and patience must be the watchwords now, rather than panic and fault-finding. There is reason to believe that the new system can work. It is said to be working well in a number of states, including California, the largest, and also Kentucky, Washington state, New York, Connecticut and others. Massachusetts has been operating a similar system successfully since Mitt Romney was governor there. Vermont has been labeled a success by some, though its struggles continue.

    It has been said that the states can be laboratories for democracy, and in the case of health care, that seems to be the case. The federal government will probably learn from California, which by election time next year will probably yield impressive numbers to support the claim that Obamacare is working, in those places that want it to work. Will Republicans really gain by campaigning to strip peopleís health coverage away from them? Not likely.
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