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The President Needs to Tackle Healthcare.Gov Like a CEO

When unveiling a new product, the operating approach should be hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It's clear that this approach was not followed, and that major mistakes were made in rolling out the website.
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In my private sector career two of my favorite sayings were "strategy is easy and execution is really hard" and that we should "run at criticism." I was reminded of these sayings this month during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act's new website. As an entrepreneur and public company CEO, I've dealt with dozens of rollouts, and when unveiling a new product, the operating approach should be hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

It's clear that this approach was not followed, and that major mistakes were made in rolling out the website. Importantly, we shouldn't play politics with the glitches associated with the website. Grandstanding and cheering mistakes doesn't solve any problems, but neither does excuse-making. Congress should not use this as yet another attempt to dismantle or defund the Affordable Care Act, which the American people do not support. However, we shouldn't sweep problems under the rug or try to ignore the facts, either. The administration must act promptly to ensure that the central premise of the Affordable Care Act is executable and, rather than dismissing criticism, should examine it in good faith and work to serve the needs of the people. President Obama must approach this problem like a CEO confronting a very bad product launch.

In my judgment, the Affordable Care Act is a deeply important piece of legislation that will, over time, serve two important goals for the American people -- 1) lowering health care costs and 2) expanding coverage to millions of Americans. Crucially, the Affordable Care Act isn't just a website -- the law also allows young adults to stay on their parents' plans, prevents coverage denials to Americans with pre-existing conditions, and prohibits women from being charged higher premiums simply because of their gender. At the same time, the long-term success of health care reform depends upon the marketplaces working: more Americans get coverage, while insurers compete for customers and spread risk, which leads to lower costs.

Unfortunately, the data now clearly suggests that the initial rollout has been flawed and the execution challenges underestimated. The site received substantially more traffic than it could handle, leading to frequent crashes and extremely long wait times. More troubling, there have been serious problems with the site's connectivity, its ability to interface with the private insurers that consumers are supposed to connect with via the site. There are widespread reports that problems with the website's connectivity lingered for months and that proper steps were not taken, or perhaps even worse, ignored.

I will leave it up to the administration to deal with responsibility for this failure, which includes members of the President's own team and many private contractors. But I would remind them of my second maxim -- "run at criticism." There are many legitimate critiques of the system from the technology industry (as opposed to misguided repeal faction of the GOP) and the administration should be embracing the full range of these technology critiques to reformulate the system for the good of the American people. It's time to listen and it is time to bring in world-class management. The President's decision to name Jeff Zients, the former acting OMB Director, to oversee repairs to the website is precisely the right thing to do. Zients has the right combination of management and project experience and analytical acuity needed for this complex task. Additionally, the administration announced this week that they will be bringing in additional IT help, implementing a "tech surge" to improve the website, which is an important first step. In addition to using the website, you can now also apply for coverage by phone, by mail, or with an in-person navigator.

The huge traffic the website has received is good news: the American people are fundamentally eager to do their part to receive health insurance. Expanding the private sector market and encouraging personal responsibility is bipartisan idea that draws on strong conservative principles.

I am of the view that the Affordable Care Act will be a transformative piece of legislation that can lower the cost of health care in the United States -- perhaps our greatest fiscal obstacle - and help all Americans lead healthy and productive lives, free from worry that a single illness could mean ruin for an entire family. But we need to be honest: in terms of making the law work at the onset, it's been a bad month. The time for scoring partisan or ideological points, on either side, should be over. The administration needs to fix the technical and operational issues; the administration should diligently reach out to the best, brightest, and those results-oriented: not to spin, but to solve. Millions of Americans need the health care marketplaces to work so that they can receive coverage. Period. Similarly, Congress would work in a bipartisan manner to improve issues that may arise on a piece of legislation that literally affects one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Any legislation of this size and scope will have imperfections as it goes from concept to reality. Again, working together we can improve this law for the benefit of all Americans.

Congressman John K. Delaney (MD-6) is a Democratic Freshman Class President and a Democratic Senior Whip. Delaney, an entrepreneur, is the only former CEO of a publicly-traded company serving in Congress.

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