Sebelius Fights the Latest Obamacare Battle with Jon Stewart

On Monday, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview slot was filled by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. As one would imagine, the conversation that followed was not pretty. He introduced his guest as “the secretary of Obamacare and human Obamacares, Kathleen Obamacare.” In the monologue that preceded the interview, he gave a rather scornful review of the Affordable Care Act’s first week, hitting particularly hard on the ongoing technical glitches that have plagued the Web portal that links customers to the online marketplaces for the 36 states with federally facilitated exchanges.

After a brief montage that catalogued the systems glitches — particularly error messages and long waiting times — Stewart offered this indictment: Americans “will camp out all night to be the first people to buy a phone or see a movie about shirtless werewolves … but you’ve got 10 minutes to get me this f–king health care,” he said. But, that was just a lead-in to his main point. Stewart suggested that he expected more from the most tech savvy administration in history, especially when it had three years to set up the system at Healthcare.gov.

The Republican Party was not left off the hook, either: A more competent party would be able to capitalize on the political problems that Obamacare has created and maybe even “offer an alternative,” Stewart said.

Yet during his interview with Sebelius, whose department is in charge of implementing the Affordable Care Act, Stewart returned to his critique of the Affordable Care Act itself. “We’re gonna do a challenge,” he said in opening. “I’m gonna to try to download every movie ever made and you’re gonna try to sign up for Obamacare. We’ll see which happens first.”

Naturally, Sebelius has faced many questions regarding the often-confusing, often-criticized health care bill, and she segued smoothly into an explanation of its benefits: for the first time, people can compare health care policies; insurance companies have to play by new rules; and the health care reform does not affect the 85 percent of Americans who already have qualifying insurance coverage. She was able to hit her talking points, noting that many of the nation’s current uninsured will now be able to pay less for health coverage than their monthly cellphone or cable bill.

What Sebelius was more vague about is the number of people who have already purchased policies, and she was unclear about the problems that plagued the Web portal during its first week of operation. Stewart pressed her on that latter point, asking for a second time after a commercial break for a response, and she did admit that the launch had been a “little rockier than we’d like.” To the talk show host, the issues with Obamacare are “frustrating” because of the “level of incompetence that’s larger than what it should be.”

Steward grilled Sebelius harder on the delay of the employer mandate. The individual mandate — which requires all Americans who can purchase affordable insurance do so or face a penalty — will go into effect January 1, while the requirement that business with 50 or more full-time employers provide insurance to those workers was delayed for a full year. “Why does this make sense?” Stewart repeatedly asked. To which the health secretary responded that 95 percent of big businesses already provide health insurance to their employees. “A delay doesn’t change the market numbers,” Sebelius said.

That answer did not satisfy Stewart, who continued to press her. “Isn’t it a legitimate criticism that an individual cannot delay the mandate but a business can?” he questioned. Sebelius’s response was not a strong defense, especially given that Stewart has suggested that if he were an individual who did not want to buy health insurance, “I would feel like you were favoring big business because they lobbied you to delay it.” She merely said that “nothing that helps an individual get health insurance has been delayed at all,” such as the choice of plans and a possible subsidy.

In the midst of her complex explanation of why the employer mandate was no big deal, Stewart interrupted, asking, “Am I a stupid man?” While Time’s Kate Pickert noted that the talk show host is not stupid, and that the Affordable Care Act is “complicated,” the Washington Post’s Stephen Stromberg pointed out it is still wrong to give the individual mandate and the employer mandate equal importance. The fact is that the system created by Obamacare will not work without the individual mandate, but the corporate mandate is not necessary, he wrote.

What Stromberg means is that without the individual mandate, healthy individuals will not be required to purchase insurance, which they would not be as prone to do without a penalty, so the premiums of those who need insurance more will skyrocket because the marginally higher premiums paid by those healthy, cheaper-to-insure people are needed to balance their medical costs.

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