Paul Greenberg

"I just see a huge trainwreck coming down." That's not a quote from one of our old editorials or from any of the other critics of what has become known as Obamacare. It's a quote from one of its key backers, one of its designers, one of its advocates and defenders. It's a quote from Max Baucus, senior senator from Montana and Democratic stalwart on the Senate Finance Committee.

The committee was taking testimony last week from Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, though her portfolio seems to include General Confusion, too, at least where Obamacare is concerned. And what she said was enough to open even Max Baucus' eyes. For a moment, anyway. To say he sounded unhappy with Madam Secretary would be an understatement.

Among other criticisms the senator had to offer the secretary: "The administration's public-information campaign on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare in the American vernacular) deserves a failing grade. You need to fix this."

But is it fixable? . .

At another point, dissatisfied with the secretary's answers/excuses, the senator told her: "You haven't given me any data; you just give me the concepts, frankly." Why do some people feel obliged to add "frankly" to some of their assertions? Because they're not always frank, and want to distinguish this statement from their usual less than candid ones?

Ah, well, at least the senator wanted to make it clear he was being frank on this occasion. Some of us wish senators were frank all the time so they wouldn't have to mention it when they were. It would just be understood that they were leveling with the public all along. . .

The secretary of H. and H.S. responded to the senator's complaints by playing dumb: "I don't know what he's looking at," she said of his remarks once the hearing was safely over. "But we are on track to fully implement marketplaces (the insurance exchanges that are supposed to give the poor the chance to buy health insurance at competitive rates) by January 2014, and to be open for open enrollment...."

On track? Sidetracked might be more like it. Remember those subsidies that were going to help small businesses provide health insurance for their employees while Obamacare was gearing up? The process of applying for the subsidies has proven so cumbersome, so time-consuming, and generally so inefficient that, of the $40 billion set aside for this purpose, maybe only 1 percent of the money has been doled out.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.