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On the Third Hand: Muddy trails

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A few weeks ago, I was helping to work on a print feature article about the launch of the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) public exchange enrollment system.

Writing stories in advance — sometimes many weeks in advance — is one of the dangers of working for traditional print publications. When reporters are breaking news, the information they convey will be new to most readers. That helps give reporters some protection against shifts in the course of events making the stories obsolete before they appear.

When reporters are trying to write engaging, informative copy about big, well-hyped events that will take place in the reporters’ future, and in the readers’ past, that’s hard. I kept negotiating with my co-writer to come up with ways to apologize, abjectly, to the readers about us trying to predict the future, in case the Republicans succeeded at simply canceling the exchanges by Oct. 1, or aliens invaded and took control of the entire U.S. government.

So, I knew the exchanges could, and probably would surprise me.

But, even though I knew they’d surprise me, I had no idea how they’d shock me, or how much.

I could imagine that the enrollment system could be buggy. I never could have imagined, in my wildest dreams, that it would take about a week for me to be able to get through the process of setting up an account; that it would take days for me just to see what plans the exchanges in New Jersey offer; or that, when I finally was able to set up an account, the system would have no ability to even pretend to determine, totally randomly, whether I was eligible for a premium tax credit subsidy.

Then, if I had been psychic enough to imagine that would have such terrible problems, I never would have imagined that regulators and the Associated Press would go after — not the project managers — but licensed, generally law-abiding agents and brokers with website names that are too similar to the names of either or state exchange site names.

In other words: The bad guys aren’t the system designers who sent consumers hiking in the health insurance wilderness on washed-out trails, but the rough-and-ready trailblazers who try to go out and help the consumers reach health insurance application safety.

On the one hand: If aliens had arrived, I would have just sighed and wished I’d been better about stocking up on bottled water.

If, on the other hand, the exchanges had worked pretty well from the beginning, I would have gone about my business and focused on what the enrollment figures had to say about 2014 health insurer claims risk.

On the third hand, as it is now, I find myself gaping at my computer screen, muttering blub blub blub, too stunned to try to think very clearly about what might come next.

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