By Greggory Moore
When the Los Angeles Times recently spoke with Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state’s registration hub for the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare,” as it’s commonly known), apparently he told them that CoveredCA.com is a working Website.
But you can’t believe everything you read, right?
The forthcoming narrative about just how untrue Lee’s claim was stems neither from technical ineptitude nor that special frisson of Schadenfreude that Republicans have been feeling in relation to problems with the Affordable Care Act’s federal Internet hub. I’m far from techno-challenged, having spent plenty of time on both the front and back ends of a wide variety Websites (including, of course, setting up accounts and filling in forms; and while I’m not a particular fan of President Barack Obama (I voted for him in 2008 but not 2012), I have long believed in socialized medicine, and I find the Republican response to “Obamacare” to be a prideful display of ethically bankrupt obstructionism.
Nonetheless, I can tell you from experience that Lee’s characterization of CoveredCA.com was inaccurate, to say the very, very least.
Like many of us who are self-employed (my technical status despite being a staff writer for Random Lengths News), I earn very little money, and so my health insurance eats up a huge percentage of my income. So when I heard that the Affordable Care Act might afford me comparable coverage for less, I planted myself in front of my computer and navigated my way into the world of Obamacare.
Or so I tried. I never got any further than the CoveredCA.com homepage, because every time I attempted to set up an account—and I made numerous attempts—I received one of those laconic but abstruse error messages that look like a throwback to the Internet of a decade ago, the specific language of which is meaningless to you but whose indication is clear: This Website is not working at this time.
When I tried again three weeks later and encountered exactly the same issue, I wondered whether this Website would ever work. Finally, though, it let me through, and we were off to the races. Very slow races, it turned out, with screen after screen demanded redundant information. My date of birth, my phone number, my address—all had remained the same since the first time I entered them minutes earlier, but I found myself prompted to enter them repeatedly, with the Website able to carry over only my name.
Then there was the pop-up window demanding that I confirm which version of my address was correct: the one I’d written, or the alternate version it cooked up. That would have been annoying even if the “Confirm” button were not beyond the bottom of the screen, with no way to scroll down to it via mouse. Only after trying the arrow keys on my keyboard was I able to continue.
Bad conceptualization was bad enough, but when it became apparent that several fields not marked as required actually were required, I should have known my session was not going to end satisfactorily. And that is exactly what happened a short time later, as I found myself stuck on a screen that insisted I had not filled in all the required fields, even though every single field—including those not marked as required—was filled. I checked, double-checked, triple-checked; I tried again, again, again: no change. Save and Exit was my only viable option.
With uncharacteristic optimism, I tried again a few days later. This time the Website was painfully slow, and good things did not come to those who waited, as now I couldn’t even log in. I tried variations on my password, in case I was misremembering it: no luck. I tried resetting the password, only to be told that the answer to my second security question was incorrect, even though I was quite sure of my father’s middle name. I reset the password and tried to login, only to be told the password was incorrect. At first I hadn’t succeeded, so I tried and tried again. Ugh.
Covered California has an 800 number, which I dialed. After a 13-minute wait, a friendly customer-servicer came on the line. I explained the problems I was having. “I’m sorry for that inconvenience,” she said. “Yes, we have been encountering errors unfortunately that we’re still trying to resolve.” She tried to access my account. “I’m receiving an error message on my end, as well,” she said. “Just bear with me as I try to get in here.”
Two minutes of silence.
“I’m waiting for the screen to pop up,” she said. “Unfortunately we’re having problems with our system. I’m sorry about that inconvenience.”
One minute of silence.
“I’m just waiting for this next screen to pull up. I apologize for that inconvenience.” It was a phrase she uttered so often that eventually her inflection changed: “I apologize for that inconvenience.” She had mentioned the possibility of sending me or filling out a paper application, but this was an optimistic and persistent woman. But finally she admitted defeat. “Mr. Moore, I really don’t want to put you through any more of this, so why don’t we just go ahead with that paper application?”
She asked question after question that I had already answered online—not that she could access that info. Was I “Single” or “Never Married”? Covered California lists these as separate categories. Nonetheless, we muddled through, and before too long we were finished. Except for the bit where she had to read the disclaimer before signing the application for me.
She read…and read…and read. “All inmates may apply for MediCal, regardless of their incarceration status,” I was told. I was asked to affirm that “I know that the information on this application will be used to decide if the people who are applying qualify for health insurance,” as if there were some possibility I had contacted Covered California and filled out the application because I thought I was establishing my eligibility for a car loan. Three times I was told that I must promise to notify Covered California of any changes to the information (income, etc.) I had given. I was provided with Web addresses to contact in case I felt Covered California discriminated against me. They sounded like this:
WWW dot HHS dot gov slash OCR slash office slash file
HTTP colon slash slash OAG dot CA dot gov slash contact slash general dash comment dash question dash or dash complaint dash form
—as if these would be meaningful to me as they flew by over the phone before even the possibility of discrimination had occurred. I was able to scrawl down the URLs only by having her repeat them when she’d finished reading the disclaimer—an 11-minute ordeal, I kid you not.
President Obama had to go on TV last week and issue a mea culpa concerning his 2009 promise that the Affordable Care Act would allow everyone who so desires to keep his/her current policy. Considering the complexities of overhauling healthcare in the third most-populous country on the planet, perhaps impossible-to-foresee circumstances give Obama at least a partial pass on offering inaccurate information here.
But Peter Lee’s late-October claim that CoveredCA.com was a working Website is a different kettle of fish, since all that was necessary to determine its lack of functionality was for him to try to sign up. Not that this was necessary, since his Customer Service Department could have told him they were encountering problems even on their end.
While I fully support the idea of universal healthcare, I don’t pretend to grasp the enormity of the Affordable Care Act well enough to know whether on balance it will be a good thing. What I do know is that misrepresentation is never a good idea. Too bad, then, that Covered California wasn’t up front about what has really been going on. Better an embarrassing truth than a flattering fiction.