Eugene Robinson Live

Oct 22, 2013

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. Now that we have our government back and we're not in danger of default, at least for the next few months, attention has turned to the not-ready-for-beta Affordable Care Act website. It seems to be a digital train wreck. The story is different in the states that have set up their own exchanges, where the process is proceeding much more smoothly and people are signing up in healthy (no pun intended) numbers. But some of the states with the most people who need what Obamacare will provide -- including Texas, the uninsured capital of the nation -- are depending on, and it needs to get fixed. Anybody out there know how to write code? Let's get started.

I have very good health insurance and I am in reasonably good health. So I should one be one of the screaming lemmings shouting delay or defund Obamacare. But I'm not doing that. Why? Because I have two kids in college and both are heading for careers in the volatile entertainment industry where they may work seasonally and from job to job. And one daughter has a pre-existing condition: cancer at age 14. Tweak it, fix it, amend it but make it better. Don't make it go away. So this isn't really a question so much as it is a point of view I guess. I know that bad things happen to good people and when they do they'll ask for your insurance card. And it CAN happen to you. And if you don't think it will, you're either a fool or stupid.

Thank you. I wonder if there's a family in America that doesn't include someone with a preexisting condition. Just imagine what it would be like to lose your health insurance. This is how families fall into bankruptcy and ruin. A decent society has to acknowledge that bad things do indeed happen to good people. Let's tinker with Obamacare to make it work as well as we can, but we should never go back to the way things were.

Gene, It beginning to look like the only reason Obamacare isn't somewhat pushed back is because it would make the Tea Party happier than a 12 year old girl at a one direction concert. The system is horribly flawed and obviously not ready for prime-time. While there a handful of people who it immediately helps, its quite obvious that its not getting the signup rate that the government expected. This doesn't even touch on the likely cyber-security issues that are occurring. Its very unlikely something like this can be fixed quickly, esp if its left online the whole time. Yes taking it offline would be a PR hit for the Dems, but is it more important to get a working system, or to not agree with something because Cruz might have said it as well.

You fail to consider that the state exchanges are working fine and that Medicaid expansion is working fine. There is time to fix -- not a lot of time, but enough. 

As I understand it, in order for the ACA to be successful, all sorts of healthy people (of any age) need to sign up. What happens if that doesn't happen? I already have insurance through my employer; am I supposed to give that up to participate in this?

No, of course you're not supposed to give up your health insurance. I have employer-provided health insurance, and so the advent of Obamacare doesn't affect me -- as it doesn't affect most people. Early indiations are that young, healthy people are shopping avidly (to the extent the balky website lets them).

My genius wife has figured this out: as unlikely as it seems, someone in the administration understands that the only people who want Obamacare are the ones in government and academia who will never have to worry about their benefits. Since the people who have to try to sign up mostly don't want to, the number of enrollees was doomed to be miniscule from the start, at least until the fines kick in. Rather than have a smoothly functioning website that no one wants to use, the administration has chosen to mask its marketing failure behind technical incompetence. Most people don't understand what it takes to make a website work, so they can look like they're "trying their darnedest to get this thing working for the American people" while giving the media time to cover them on the lack of demand. Kinda brilliant, in its own way.

No offense, but I think you and your wife might both consider cutting back on the caffeine and the Fox News. The people who are trying to work their way through the website are doing so because they need health insurance. The ACA is supposed to serve them, not the people who already have all the insurance they need.

My wife and I have had it. We worked hard for decades, saved our money for retirement, put our kids (who have good jobs and, more importantly, strong work ethics) through college. and are now enjoying retirement. We care about the future of this country and our children. We believe those who want free this (birth control, telephones), free that (unearned disability payments) and claim some right to that are stealing from us and our children. We simply don't care about them any more as they do not care about our views. So, we hope Obamacare fails. We don't believe there is any right to government healthcare and, frankly, we don't care any more about the people who say they have a right to it. That's what this current Administration has done to us.

Um, since you're retired, by chance do you get health care through Medicare? I imagine you're be renouncing it soon, since you have no right to "government healthcare." Also, if you're receiving Social Security checks, isn't that, too, stealing from your children? Just asking.

Hi Gene, since nobody else is doing it, would you PLEASE write an article that explains the distinction between a bad website and the ACA? The Republicans are doing everything they can to conflate the website with the legislation. That will continue to cast confusion and draw the discussion in a dumb direction (the GOP direction) as long nobody points out that the website is NOT the ACA. Smart people are saying things here and there that get at this tangentially, e.g., "the states with their own exchanges are signing up people", but so far I haven't heard a coherent point made about not conflating the website with the law, its benefits, its challenges, its social transformation, etc. The website is a piece technology and it will get fixed. The ACA is what matters, and the GOP will keep focusing on the website, because they are always looking for the next easy target. But no matter how badly CGI and CMS screwed it up, it will get fixed, and we will move on. But this nonsense from the Republicans needs to be neutralized, and that will happen if you start with a clear article, and then the rest of the progressives will use that to get their talking points straight. Thanks

I'll let you write it. There, you just did.

Why should she keep her job? Basically the biggest website for the biggest government program in the last 20 years if not longer does not work. It was not really even tested until within a week of the launch date. These are managerial problems, not high web traffic or a bad line of code. Slate's article on how poorly planned the project was, makes me think this is even worse than we currently know.

I expect you'll see plenty more stories that explore what went wrong. And I expect there will be lots of questions about the Secretary's role in overseeing the rollout.

Why does an Administration that self-proclaims its transparency (what a joke. Fast and Furious anyone?) be so afraid of telling the electorate what's going on with Obamacare enrollment? Sibelius can't testify this week because of a fundraiser and is reduced to a simpering mess on a comedy show?

I suspect -- and this is more indictment than excuse -- that administration officials are not giving better numbers because they don't know them. Let's acknowledge, though, that the numbers from the state exchanges and Medicaid expansion are pretty specific and actually quite good. 

I agree with some aspects of your column, mainly that the best way to get the deficit under control is an expanding economy. However, it is unfair to add more debt on the backs of my generation and my children. The baby boomers, who have spent this country into enormous debt, need to take responsibility. They need to have their SS benefits cut back, and there needs to be a serious overhaul of Medicare.

The point of today's column was that economic growth is the best, most effective form of debt reduction. Slow growth and stagnation add more to our children's burden than the borrowing we're doing. Healthy growth would make entitlements much easier to handle.

ACA may be flawed, but it's the best we could get, given the factions in Congress. It would be impossible to pass today, so let's cut this talk of rolling it back and work on getting the short-term problems fixed.

I agree, and in any event there just isn't going to be a rollback. As Sen. Ted Cruz should have learned.

Maybe if the majority of states would have set up their own exchanges we wouldn't have this mess. How do you set up an error-free system this large without beta testing?

It is incomprehensible. Again, I'm not an IT expert, but it seems to me that is could be fairly easily fitted with a new front end that lets people comparison shop pretty quickly and easily. Then, when they settled on one plan and decided to apply, they could get down to the levels that are causing the problems -- the queries to the IRS database to verify income, for example. People could be allowed to self-report income for purposes of window shopping, the way it's done on mortgage loan comparison sites. 

Why don't you have a TV show of your own? Your comments, commentary, and opinions, are insightful and entertaining...

You think I'm ready for my close-up?

So many 'sources' are putting their own spin out there about the rising costs of healthcare as a direct result of the ACA...and the higher rates of health insurance as well. My head is spinning because it doesn't make sense that these 'facts' are true due to the nature of the system. The White House has not done a good job laying down the facts so that the average person understands the benefit and to belay the untruths being told...

The White House is making an effort to tell its side of the story. Yesterday, for example, the president was surrounded by people who are benefiting from the ACA. The truth is that the ACA rates came in somewhat lower than expected. As people actually purchase insurance, we'll hear more stories about the savings they have realized.

I wonder how many folks bottling up are like me, have employer coverage, but just wanted to check the costs to see if we could get a better deal (I gave up trying) I'm pretty shocked at how messed up it's been though. Are you?

You would expect a reasonable number of people checking out the website just to see if they could get a better deal -- and so you should plan accordingly. I'm not surprised there were problems the first day or week but I'm surprised they have persisted.

I ask this with all sincerity, I hope you can give me a serious answer. I'm 29 and was laid off in September, and currently don't have health insurance. I have reserves in my savings to get me by for 2, maybe 3 months. I am healthy, and don't want to sign up, because I don't want to add on another monthly bill. Why is this fair???

Some percentage of healthy 29-year-olds will suffer serious illness or injury. I hope you're not one of them, but what if you are? What will you do? You'll go to the emergency room and you'll receive very expensive care. You may not be able to pay -- you may even be forced to go bankrupt -- in which case the rest of us will ultimately pay for your care in the form of higher insurance premiums. Why is that fair? It sounds to me as if you might qualify for ACA subsidies that make the cost of a policy quite low. And in any event, the first-year fine for not having insurance is quite small.

Lets be frank, much of the country likes the idea of universal health care as a theory. However the implementation of this is far beyond sloppy. Its poorly designed, is leading to expensive coverage for those without subsidies (which it turns out to be more than was initially implied) and allows people to sit around and wait to get sick. Everyone falls into one of two groups right now, those who want it changed and those who know its currently a failure in all but theory, but refuse to admit that because of the political nature of the bill. If Dems really cared about fixing it and not about creating talking point, they would temporarily take it offline and try to resolve the issues.

Wrong. If Republicans cared about fixing the ACA, they would work with Democrats and the president to correct whatever flaws the program has. Instead, the GOP has refused to engage on any technical fixes of the kind that every big new program has needed. But this is temporary. Eventually, the fixes will get made. Sorry to disappoint you, but the ACA isn't going anywhere.

Why have employers been granted a 1-year delay in their mandate, but individuals have not? Not only does this set a dangerous precident in that the President is able to tinker with laws already written and passed by Congress, but it contradicts the basic premise of the law, that employers would be required to provide coverage when the law kicked in. Instead now, we'll have an entire year of individuals who will place a heavy burdon on the system while employers sit back and count their money. If the employers get to wait a year, why can't the rest of us?

The employers still are required to provide insurance. Theydon't have to pay the fine for a year, but the mandate is still there. Similarly, the fine for individuals who do not buy insurance is so small in the ACA's first year (it ramps up gradually) that it's not remotely coercive. But as for employers, the mandate is still there.

Do the conservatives who claim "The reason the GOP didn't win is because they're not conservative enough" really believe they missed out on independent and cross-over voters because those voters would have preferred MORE conservative candidates?

You'd have to ask them. Personally, I just don't get it. The GOP is in some danger of marginalizing itself as far as national elections are concerned. To put it mildly.

Since the gun control debate took an unexpected but sound defeat after the Sandy Hook massacre (the one time you'd expect gun control to be victorious, since most of the victims were children), is there any hope of the debate being reopened after this Nevada shooting?

It should be, but I can't be optimistic. Not at this point. Only when the NRA starts getting defeated at the ballot box will sensible gun control return to the agenda.


And that's all for today's agenda, folks. My time is up. Thanks for a lively hour, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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