Insurance, by the numbers

Anyone who has laid eyes on the USS Lincoln or USS Nimitz knows it takes a lot of space and time to get a big aircraft carrier turned around. And America’s health insurance system presents an equally cumbersome challenge.

On Tuesday, public insurance exchanges opened under the Affordable Care Act. This was the first day uninsured individuals and small-business operators could log onto government websites and shop for coverage.

Even before the day arrived, President Obama was in full spin mode — admitting glitches were inevitable and encouraging citizens to keep the faith. And, oh boy, were there glitches. Everyone who has ever wanted to dropkick a wastebasket across his office cubicle knows how maddening computers can be.

News reports described the frustrating sluggishness of the federal site, Healthcare.gov. And those using the Washington state site, Wahbexchange.org, pretty much threw up their hands and realized they’d have to return another day. Inevitably, supporters and opponents of the Affordable Care Act were prone to assign meaning to this bumpy start.

Sworn enemies of the law appealed to our natural distrust of large bureaucracies: The computer system symbolized all the ways this new system for health insurance will be slow, unresponsive and unreliable.

To those on the other side, website overloads were proof of success: The queue of citizens was a testament to the popularity of the law and all it promises.

It is far-fetched, however, to believe the opening-day beta test reflects meaningfully on the economic underpinnings of the Affordable Care Act. And the perceived flood of buyers? Health insurers and industry consultants told news reporters that the number of actual sign-ups was very low – either because few people completed their transactions or because interest in the plan is falling short of projections.

This new health care system is not a class exam or a sporting event. There will not be an immediate grade or score. It will take at least three months, and possibly much longer, to see how the enrollments, the costs and the savings add up.

Government computers may speed up. Or maybe not. House Republicans may stop obsessing over the law. Or maybe not.

But true measurements of success are likely to involve questions like:

How many uninsured Americans gained access to our health care system? How many younger, healthy adults joined the insurance pool, rather than paying an annual penalty? And how fast did health-care costs grow compared to the rest of our economy?

After all, the point of the Affordable Care Act is to make health care affordable.

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