Media

Obamacare Troubles Inspire Leaks From a Once-Tight-Lipped White House


President Obama in the Oval Office

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Obama in the Oval Office

For nearly five years, the people who toil inside the Obama administration have been pretty good about refraining from anonymously sniping at one another in the pages of newspapers. That’s changing after the bungled roll-out of Obamacare. Over the weekend, there was a revealing Obamacare narrative in the Washington Post that relied heavily on blind quotes from insiders deflecting responsibility—a sign of the stress the past few weeks have put on an administration that has prided itself on emulating Obama’s no-drama aesthetic.

The Post’s thoroughly reported account, by Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin, detailed the events leading up to the Oct. 1 unveiling of the healthcare.gov website that millions of Americans were supposed to use to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Many of the sources quoted in the piece were clearly trying to distance themselves from the site’s failure.

Goldstein and Eilperin write that Obama’s one-time economic aides, Larry Summers and Peter Orszag, were fearful from the start and lobbied for the White House to hire “an outside health reform ‘czar’ with experience in business, insurance and technology.” But the Post writers say President Barack Obama wanted to entrust the building of the online exchange to Nancy-Ann DeParle, his chief health-care policy adviser.

Does that mean DeParle is to blame for the healthcare.gov debacle? Not so fast. A “former senior administration official” cited in the story said DeParle, who no longer directly oversees the project, couldn’t get top White House officials, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, to focus on it.

That was just the beginning of the anonymous spread-the-blame game. What about Congress? Weren’t there Democrats on Capitol Hill who were keeping an eye on the website’s progress? Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) apparently tried to oversee the effort, but officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, who were responsible for the Obamacare portal, weren’t always forthcoming with information, the Post reported.

CMS had its own unnamed defenders in the piece, who said officials there had placed their trust in CGI Federal, the private contractor that worked on the website, only to discover that the company “repeatedly said that certain features of the exchange were ready when they were not.” That sounds terrible. But wait: The reporters also cited an e-mail describing how CGI Federal warned CMS in August that it was way behind schedule, which didn’t stop the administration from charging ahead.

So perhaps the blame lies with White House political aides who, the Post said, viewed Obamacare through a political prism? No. A “White House official” pointed a finger at Republican leaders who had tried to sabotage the law from the start.

To their credit, Goldstein and Eilperin make it clear that the White House didn’t need any help from the GOP to make a mess of things. Yet in the end, the story may shed more light on the way Washington ducks and covers than about who really should be held to account.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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