The disastrous state of President Barack Obama's signature health care reform is feeding the rampant belief that the government is utterly incapable of doing anything right.
The bungled rollout -- a dysfunctional website, postponed employer mandate, canceled policies and a dicey eleventh-hour fix -- has sown confusion, trepidation and anger while energizing unyielding critics who want the whole thing scrapped. The deafening partisan brawl raging in Washington and beyond is the latest battle in the never-ending fight over the proper role of government in our lives.
But as the parties slug it out, we should keep their eyes on the prize: an affordable, accessible and sustainable health care system. That's what the nation desperately needs.
And as unlikely as it may seem, the administration and Congress should work together to improve on the Affordable Care Act's reforms. That's no small order given the bad blood between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Yet as the polling about reform versus repeal reaches the breakeven point, an opening could occur.
There is little difference between politics and the policy at this point. Obama's proposed fix on Thursday to the cancellation of policies is a political fix that the left worries undoes the need to drive bad insurance policies out of the marketplace. That's why the administration needs to get the Affordable Care Act's federal website working -- so people shopping for their own insurance can compare plans and seamlessly find out if they qualify for government help to defray the cost. It's working well in New York because of a superior website and promotional campaign. Since Oct. 1, 48,162 people have enrolled in plans; another 197,011 have completed the application process and just have to select a plan.
But nationwide, the 4 million to 5 million people who've been notified their coverage will be canceled -- despite the president's promises in 2010 that people could keep their policies -- have rocked the law's launch more than the White House could have imagined. This episode has undermined the people's trust that Obama could make this work despite their apprehensions about the law's scope and ambitions.
And that's why the president has to make absolutely sure there are no more problems lurking that could disrupt the effort to get people insured. His margin for error is narrowing quickly. Obama's legacy hangs in the balance. But that's not the real worry. The public would be ill-served by simply returning to health care the way it was.
There are 45 million people uninsured. With a $2.7-trillion annual tab for health care, Americans spend about twice as much per capita as other advanced nations, with no better health outcomes. Until slowed by the recession, those costs were increasing annually at a double-digit rate. Health insurance premiums doubled over the last decade. Medical bills are the leading contributor to personal bankruptcies.
People with pre-existing conditions were denied insurance. The amount insurers would spend for a policyholder's care, was routinely capped. Policyholders were dropped by their insurance carriers after they got sick, abandoned in their time of greatest need. Obamacare ended those insurance practices. The collapse or repeal of the law is not the answer to the nation's health care woes. Republicans should bring their ideas for improving the health care system to the table and genuinely engage with Democrats.
The public has been disillusioned by the recent government shutdown, flirtations with default, fiscal cliffs, and the botched debut of Obamacare. As a result the approval ratings of Congress and both parties are in the toilet.
Rather than remaining locked in a mutual death spiral, Democrats and Republicans should work on making life better for the American people.