ACA Delay Tactics: Is This Any Way To Implement A Policy?

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Obamacare
A man fills out an information card during an Affordable Care Act outreach event hosted by Planned Parenthood for the Latino community in Los Angeles on Sept. 28, 2013.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) ought to be outraged that once again – for the 35th or 36th time depending on who is keeping score – the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to change or delay part of the health care bill.

Late Tuesday we learned that the administration is extending the enrollment deadline for people to sign up for coverage. Americans who verify that they tried to enroll under the ACA before March 31st will be given until mid-April to sign up. Simply log on to healthcare.gov, click the button to say you tried to enroll, and you’ve got the extension, no questions asked; certainly none by the administration, which has already said it will not check the veracity of the information.

Since the news broke, we have heard a lot from opponents of the ACA like House Speaker John Boehner who asked: “What the hell is this? A joke?” Yet while we have heard a lot from critics of the ACA, supporters – those who should be most upset by this latest development – have been largely silent. They shouldn’t be. Instead, they should be asking the administration whether this is any way to implement a policy program, particularly one as important as this?

Is this is any way to administer a policy?

It’s hard to imagine how this decision makes sense from an administrative or policy perspective. The amount of confusion alone which these frequent changes and delays have engendered is just one of many examples of how little sense this makes from a policy implementation perspective. After all it was just a few weeks ago that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the deadline is set and cannot be extended.  “It’s not too late for Americans to sign up and get covered, but they’ll want to do it today as they approach that March 31 deadline.” Yet yesterday we found out that wasn’t true; the deadline is as malleable as the rest of the provisions in this bill.

If the public is confused by the number of delays and changes, they have every reason to be. After all, wasn’t it just last fall during the shutdown that Republicans were demanding the administration delay implementation of Obamacare and Democrats were saying no? Both sides were so committed to their positions at that time that the government was shut down at a cost of $300 million per day.

The truth is, the decision to delay doesn’t make sense from a policy or implementation perspective. And if it does – if there is reason – shouldn’t the administration let us know what it is? And explain why it makes sense now but didn’t a few days ago? Shouldn’t our elected officials in congress, particularly those who support the bill, be jumping up and down demanding answers to these and other questions?

 Is this merely a political maneuver?

If this delay doesn’t make sense from a policy perspective the next logical question is why engage in another delay tactic? Is it merely a political maneuver? If so, who benefits from it?

It is common to think that another delay will help Republicans. It is no secret that the vast majority of the GOP’s energy as we move into the mid-term elections will be on what they see as the failures of Obamacare.

But would the administration really and knowingly hand the GOP another talking point on the ACA? Absolutely not, nor should they. The administration knows that the truth is Republicans won’t benefit much, if at all, from this delay. As The Fix’s Chris Cillizza writes, when it comes to Obamacare “public opinion is settled.  Delays, changes and the like won't change whether you like or hate the law.” As a result, Republicans have little to gain from another in a long line of changes and delays.

If GOP doesn’t gain politically as a result of the delay, whose left? It’s the Democrats of course. The administration wouldn’t have pursued another delay, particularly of the all-important March 31 deadline, if they didn’t calculate it was politically necessary. The truth is Democrats know that the more people they get to sign up for health care the better they will be able to respond to GOP attacks during the mid-term elections and the less likely it is Republicans will be able to take steps to roll-back the President’s signature program.

Like much else going on in Washington DC today, action and inaction are largely the result of political calculations that have little to do with sound policy making or administration. This latest delay makes little sense from a policy implementation perspective. Anyone who truly supports the health care bill should be frustrated by this. Yet since the announcement was made last night the silence from ACA supporters has been deafening.

Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Iona College & Campaign Management at NYU-SCPS. She can be reached via twitter @JeanneZaino  

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