"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.By now Secretary Sebelius' department has missed one deadline after another when it comes to putting Obamacare in place. She fits right in with this administration. The president himself neglected to submit a federal budget on time for years, even if the law requires him to do so. Deadlines, shmedlines. But that's all right, it'll all turn out to be the Republicans' fault. Just you wait and see. Our chief executive is quite remarkable in that regard; he can turn any failure of his own into -- abracadabra! -- another partisan talking point.
Despite her talk about being on track, Ms. Sebelius' department has just announced that, even though a wide choice of insurance policies was supposed to be available for employees of small businesses, only one policy is offered for now. The others, the department tells us, won't be ready till 2015.
The board of experts that is supposed to reduce the cost of Medicare? It hasn't even been appointed yet, much less met. Look for it to be put on hold, too.
But the administration does seem in a hurry to hire hordes of "navigators" to recruit enrollees for the insurance exchanges that Obamacare is supposed to set up. These new hires are expected to cost the government -- that is, the taxpayers -- some $54 million, which is a hefty amount of patronage to distribute.
The word is the administration wants even more money to hire even more of these helpers. After all, you can't have enough navigators when you're navigating an unmapped sea of bureaucracy. Which is a pretty good summation of Obamacare at this point.
Meanwhile, the kind of professionals who may actually know what they're talking about -- actuaries -- have estimated that Obamacare is likely to mean higher costs for insurers, 32 percent more, to pay off claims under individual health-care policies. That's according to the Society of Actuaries. Those insurers in turn will doubtless have to charge higher premiums to cover their higher costs.
What, Kathleen Sebelius worry? It's nothing to be concerned about, she explains, because the insurance policies Obamacare will offer through these exchanges will cover so many more benefits than just the basics. Which is the big problem with Obamacare. Somewhere in all its reams of elaborate provisions there was once the germ of a good idea: Cover everybody in the country by having the government provide the now uninsured with just the most basic health coverage -- protection against "catastrophic illness," for example. Instead, Obamacare has grown like kudzu, covering everything from elective abortion to, well, you name it. (Liposuction, anyone?)
Sen. Baucus, who's just announced he won't seek re-election after six terms in the U.S. Senate, may have been reflecting his constituents' growing dissatisfaction with Obamacare as it is shaping up, or rather not shaping up. That dissatisfaction is scarcely limited to the good people of Montana. More and more folks all over the country may catch on to Obamacare before this not-so-grand experiment is concluded. Which means more and more politicians will echo their constituents' complaints about Obamacare as election year approaches. . .
Senator Baucus still contends that Obamacare was a good idea in its conception. Only its implementation, he explains, is faulty. Well, he's half right. For it was misconceived, too. In place of simplicity, Americans got complexity. Instead of a clear, simple reform, Americans are getting a vast bureaucracy that would make one of Rube Goldberg's machines look like a model of efficiency. Ol' Rube specialized in contraptions designed to accomplish some simple chore in the most complicated way, all for comic effect. Only there's nothing funny about this one.