October 21, 2013

THE FIRST step in dealing with a problem is to admit that you have one. By that standard, President Obama began Monday to resolve the embarrassing computer malfunctions that marred the opening phase of the Affordable Care Act. The administration has been tardy in dealing with a brewing crisis that could undermine confidence in the program.

Mr. Obama declared that “nobody’s madder than me” about the glitches, slow loading and stalls with the Web site HealthCare.gov that angered people wanting to explore their options or sign up for the new health insurance plans. While properly extolling the virtues of extending health care to millions of Americans who lack it, the president acknowledged, “There’s no sugarcoating” the computer mess. He said plaintively, “I want the cash registers to work. I want the checkout lines to be smooth.”

This is the kind of annoying sideshow for which Mr. Obama ought to demand accountability. How is it that the Department of Health and Human Services launched the president’s signature domestic program with a computer system that could not handle the anticipated load? We share Mr. Obama’s frustrations with efforts by House Republicans and GOP governors to sabotage Obamacare. But the computer snafu was self-inflicted incompetence.

Mr. Obama said Monday that “the number of people who’ve visited the site has been overwhelming,” with about 20 million site visits to date. Why is that so overwhelming? Commercial computer systems such as Google and Facebook manage to handle billions of visitors every month. The U.S. government runs supercomputers for national defense applications that are among the highest-performing in the world. Mr. Obama’s administration seems to have behaved as if this project were not a priority.

The most serious consequence of the computer failures may be to dent public confidence. This would be gravely damaging, since the program requires a large number of healthy people to sign up in order to make it viable to support the sick. Mr. Obama must do everything he can to erase doubts. Good thing he called in the techies to fix the site and is offering other methods for registering, including by phone and in person.

But he must also pay more attention to credibility and transparency. Why has Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declined to testify this week before a House committee? She ought to meet critics head-on, instead of claiming a scheduling conflict. And officials refuse to say how many people have enrolled in the health-care plans through the federal portal. Why the secrecy? The administration is not going to restore confidence through secrecy and damage control.