When a certain well-known public facility failed to open on time, it sat unused because of a single flaw in a vital part of its operation. The facility subsequently missed rescheduled opening dates of six and seven months later became a personal embarrassment locally and a running joke nationwide. It stayed like that until the facility finally opened to the public 16 months later.
Today the Denver International Airport is one of the nation's busiest, a vital airline industry hub, a critical stopover for passengers on cross-country flights. When problems surfaced in the automated baggage system in October 1993, and when they weren't fixed by April and May of 1994, no one said, "Well, this means air travel is fundamentally flawed. Let's go back to covered wagons." They fixed it. Today, Denver's airport runs smoothly, travelers give it relatively high marks, and as more time passes, fewer people will remember the name, Stapleton Airport.
On Wednesday, the White House announced a delay in the Obamacare mandate. Americans will now have an extra month-and-a-half to get health insurance before facing a penalty under Obamacare, meaning they won't face a fine if they've got a plan by March 31. The six-week delay isn't because of website difficulties, says the White House, but because people weren't certain when the penalty came into effect. It hadn't been clear whether Americans simply had to sign up for a plan before the penalty took effect, or whether their coverage itself had to begin by that date. Now, people won't be penalized as long as they've signed up by March 31.
There's something sad about Website glitches having gotten a bigger ACA concession out of the administration than the entire might of the Republican Party, but it's all but certain Republicans – happy to have a new talking point – will somehow claim this as a victory.
But with all the hyperventilating over the Obamacare rollout --much of it likely intentional-- it would help to have a historical perspective by examining several other large-scale government programs that struggled in the beginning but today, are thoroughly embedded in American society:
- The early days of Social Security were burdened by what was called a "John Doe" problem: Employers often forgot to include worker names and their new Social Security numbers in their earnings report, leaving the government without the basic information needed to calculate benefits and cut checks. Vehement opponents of the program --much like opponents today-- railed against the program before its inception, and some turned the "John Doe" problem into a lengthy crusade, stoking panic that the government would be unable to pay out the promised benefits to millions. But corrections were made and within a year the number of John Does disappeared.
- Medicare's 1966 rollout was plagued by numerous problems. Eligible seniors wouldn't sign up, mistakenly believing it meant giving up Social Security (three guess who fueled that rumor). In the South, many hospitals wouldn't participate because the Medicare law required them to comply with the new Civil Rights Act. Back then they said it was invasive government. Back then it was common for doctors to bill patients directly and seniors didn't like having to wait for Medicare reimbursement checks to arrive in the mail. But government and private insurers worked out those initial kinks and by the late 1960s the system was working reasonably well.
- The Bush administration's new Medicare Part D program in 2005 was to provide seniors coverage for prescription drugs. Guess what happened? Website problems. The launch was delayed twice over the course of a month. Then, when it actually launched, the site moved so slowly it took visitors two hours to access it. And it didn't move any faster when it did finally come up. The glitches continued throughout the open enrollment period from November 15, 2005 to May 15, 2006, but corrections were made, the website was improved and by the end of open enrollment in May 2006, over 16 million successfully enrolled for drug benefits in Part D. Today, Part D is enormously popular.
- Skeptics worried that the Peace Corps would be overrun with immature draft-dodgers. When one of the first volunteers lost a postcard she intended to send to her stateside boyfriend that her host country of Nigeria suffered from widespread squalor and primitive living conditions, a Nigerian student found it, made copies and distributed it widely. It sparked an international incident that included riots, and a "cloak and dagger" operation to whisk the volunteer back to the state. But forged shrugged off the setback by joking to a new batch of volunteers, "Keep in touch, but not by postcard!" Two years later, foreign governments were so happy with the program they couldn't get enough of the Peace Corps.
- When the progressive income tax was enacted in October 1913, 100 years ago this month, what do you suppose was the biggest gripe? The complexity of the forms people had to fill out. One lawyer made headlines in 1915 by complaining that only palm readers could decipher the forms, and a NY Times headline from the same year characterized the forms as "Income Tax Riddles." The income tax may not be popular but that's not the point. What matters is that it does two things reasonably well: "It raises money, and it satisfies popular notions of economic fairness."
Bottom line: When talking about any of these programs, nobody talks about their difficult rollouts. In the long view, all were ultimately inconsequential and inevitably forgotten. Glitches got fixed, people got acclimated, and the policies have held up based on their merits. The website issue is a red herring, a distraction used for the purposes of a PR battle. The same people who were opponents or supporters before aren't changing their minds now, but if they're honest, they'll concede what history is suggesting here: That Obamacare will be judged on the quality of the coverage, not on the first incarnation of the website.