What HealthCare.gov and the BP oil spill have in common — and don’t

October 28, 2013
(Jason Reed/Reuters)
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough (Jason Reed/Reuters)

In a private meeting last week, former White House aides including press secretary Robert Gibbs suggested to President Obama's current staff that the federal health insurance marketplace’s problematic rollout was akin to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago. It’s an apt, though not perfect, analogy. Here are several of the ways the two situations are similar, and a few in which they’re not.

Here are the similarities:

  1. There is only one clear way to end the crisis. With the 2010 spill, the hole needed to be plugged. With HealthCare.gov, the Web site needs to work properly so consumers can sign up for health insurance.
  2. Thanks to the Internet, the problem is on full display for anyone to see. In the case of the spill, Democrats on the House Select Committee on Global Warming posted a streaming video of the oil gushing from the well for Americans to watch on their computers. In the same way, anyone can log onto HealthCare.gov at any hour and see the glitches first-hand.
  3. Private companies hold the key to solving the problem. While then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and his staff offered several suggestions on how to plug the well, BP and its contractors were the ones with true expertise when it came to deepwater drilling. The White House has brought it some of its innovation fellows and former Office and Management and Budget director Jeffrey Zients to help manage the fix, but it’s really the federal contractors involved with the site who can address its many problems. Case in point: the general contractor now in charge of fixing it is Quality Software Services Inc., one of the original firms awarded a contract to build the site.
  4. Suddenly, private companies are coming out of the woodwork to offer ideas. Remember when actor Kevin Costner said he had a company that could help clean up the spill? There are now other Web-based health insurance sites, such as eHealth.com, who are offering their services as a way to let consumers enroll under the federal marketplace.
  5. The White House initially had little access to information. While the Obama administration has deliberately chosen not to release some data about the program — such as how many Americans have enrolled so far — they also lacked critical information from Health and Human Services and specifically, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid about what specifically was ailing the site. In 2010, when the blowout took place at the Macondo well, there was initial confusion about the cause of the accident and to what extent the spill was under control.

Here are the differences:

  1. The geographic extent of the problem. While the oil spill was a massive disaster, it affected less than six states — mainly Louisiana, with modest impacts on Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The main victims were animals and plants within the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, which have no voice in the political process. With the federal marketplace, millions of Americans in 36 states are affected.
  2. The degree to which political opposition is already mobilized. Since the Macondo explosion was an unforeseen — though preventable — event, no one had spent years organizing a field campaign based on the issue. Moreover much of the criticism came from offshore oil drilling opponents — as opposed to Republican lawmakers, who back offshore oil exploration — and was aimed at either BP or previous administrations, rather than President Obama and his deputies. This time, opponents of the Affordable Care Act have devoted three years to dismantling it.
  3. The ultimate responsibility for the problem. While lax federal oversight may have contributed to the Gulf of Mexico spill, there was no question that the actions of BP and its contractors caused the explosion and its environmental impact. In the case of the new health-care law, the Obama administration not only crafted the bill, they oversaw the creation of the federal health insurance marketplace — it was their signature project. So while the contractors they hired will come under fire for the enrollment system’s failure, no one questions that this problem rests with the administration.
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Ed O'Keefe | October 28, 2013