October 21, 2013

This is a representation, in trucks, of the ease of navigating the site. (Dayna Smith for the Washington Post)

Well, so far, using the Healthcare.gov Web site is, er, not quite as easy as falling off a log.

President Obama, speaking in the Rose Garden on Monday about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, admitted that there were some problems with the Web site. But Obamacare “is not just a Web site.” Then he suggested that you could try signing up via phone or even in person, nonchalantly like it’s 1994 or something.

Sign up in person? Sign up over the telephone? Do you realize who you are talking to here? I am from a generation that would rather have our leg torn off by a drunk 19th century surgeon than place a telephone call to anyone. Fortunately, if we fail to sign up for Obamacare by phone, this may be the kind of medical treatment we can look forward to.

Sign up over the telephone? We don’t even order pizzas over the telephone, on the grounds that we might have to listen to a stranger breathe.

The instant you learn that you no longer have to do things over the telephone, you stop. If there were a button I could push to feel connected to my grandparents instead of physically dialing their numbers into an actual telephone, I would never place a call at all. No one actually likes phone calls except the people you wish weren’t on the phone, like the lady at the reception desk when you really need someone to see you because you are bleeding all over the carpet, or the person driving your bus.

Sign up for a service in person? I don’t even flag taxis in person, and all I have to do for that is walk out onto the street and raise my hand. Sign up for insurance in person? What era is this? Why don’t you send your indentured servant over in a post-chaise and have him sign up for you? Why don’t you send a mule over to the doctor’s house and tell him to come pay a house call?

“Hey,” Obama might as well have added, “another way of signing up for Obamacare that is even more efficient than using the Web site might be sending a carrier pigeon, or even a telegram.”

This is a slight exaggeration, but the president is on Twitter constantly. He knows how we do things now. Whenever anything, no matter how obscure or intangible, is not instantly available to me on the Internet, I feel personally slighted.

When it is faster to sign up by telephone than via your Web site, in 2013, something is seriously the matter.

Look, I don’t want to join the chorus of people piling on. The chorus of people piling on would not have done any better building a Web site. If, four years ago, I had been made aware that I needed to construct something that would roll out in 2013ish, be the face of the president’s flagship legislation and have to accommodate millions of sign-ups, I would definitely not have worried about it until the last minute and would have operated under the assumption that no more than seven or eight people would attempt to register on day one. We would be in even worse straits now!

My other favorite part of this is that lawmakers, who until recently thought that Obamacare was a HIDEOUS BEAST sent from the deeps to DEVOUR THE ELDERLY and RUIN AMERICA’S HOPES, now somehow think that the failure of the Web site where you sign up for it is a Great Calamity. Also, a group of people who as recently as last Thursday seemed to think Javascript was a font used at coffee shops is mocking the team behind the Web site for its failure. Let’s see you do any better! The longer you talk about the problems with the World Wide Web Site, the more obvious it is that your staff still prints out all your e-mails and has someone dressed as the 1950s read them to you, while you dictate responses to an elderly lady with a typewriter.

Except Steve Stockman, who quipped, “Bad idea building HealthCare.gov using GeoCities.” Good joke, Steve Stockman!

On Monday the president managed to talk about this while offering, as Benjy Sarlin complained on Twitter “So little to no detail on A) What’s wrong with site. B) What’s being done to fix. C) Timetable to fix. Hoping to get more answers later” and while he did this a lady behind him fainted. (She’s fine.) Is it Geocities? Is it Angelfire? How many people have signed up?

In the first week, since the launch of Healthcare.gov on Oct. 1, according to the private-sector research firm Kantar US Insights, only 36,000 people were able to sign up.

Maybe the fact that the Web site has not worked for most people disguises the fact that when it does work, it registers you as a sex offender and infects your computer with a virus.

But it’s worth worrying about and trying to fix.

Among the numerous lessons of behavioral economics is the truth that if something is not easy as falling off a log, we will not do it, no matter what a good idea it is. Make our savings opt-out rather than opt-in, and everyone saves! Same with organ donation. Make anything even mildly difficult, and we decide to make Cheez-Its dinner for a third day in a row instead of telephoning for pizza. This rule can have especially dire effects when it comes to Obamacare — if signing up doesn’t work as smoothly as falling off a log for the people who don’t urgently need care, then the only people who will persist long enough may well be the folks for whom health care is a matter of some urgency. That drives up premiums. The more fair-weather insurance fans get scared off now, the worse for everyone’s premiums if they don’t come back.

So here’s the president of the United States, trying to get us to call the call center: “The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that: 1-800-318-2596. Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers, although I admit that the wait times probably might go up a little bit now that I’ve read the number out loud on national television.”

Also, if you call, you can “get your questions answered by real people 24 hours a day in 150 different languages!” And a free Earwax Vacuum, if you call in the first half hour! It’s easy as falling off a log. Almost.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.