President Barack Obama is having a President George W. Bush moment.

Or is Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius having a FEMA Director Michael Brown moment?

Actually, it’s both.

Days after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005, and well after the world was aware of the scope of the storm’s destruction and people’s suffering, Bush famously turned to Brown and said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Thing is, Brown wasn’t and hadn’t. At least 1,833 people died during the storm and its aftermath, and it is now widely acknowledged that FEMA was unprepared to respond to a disaster of that scale. Its slow reaction was partly responsible for unnecessary suffering, filth and death.

In the end, the federal government acknowledged it wasn’t prepared to deal with a storm the size and strength of Katrina, and that more could have been done better and more quickly. And, now, Brown is defending himself in his book, “Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm.” He puts the responsibility for FEMA’s failure on Bush’s shoulders, saying the president just didn’t “get” how bad the situation was.

Fast-forward eight years to the disaster that is HealthCare.gov.

The federal Web portal for Americans to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act launched Oct. 1, but the site was so ridiculously inadequate, so frustratingly slow that a tiny total of six people managed to navigate the site and get signed up for health care that day.

And it hasn’t gotten much better since. In fact, a month later, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can’t accurately calculate how many people have signed up. Makes a person wonder how the health plans these people have signed up for will work.

Obama is taking responsibility for getting HealthCare.gov fixed. Sebelius is also taking responsibility for getting it fixed.

But who is taking responsibility for screwing it up so badly?

Knowing this is such an important — and controversial — make-or-break thing for Obama’s signature law, how could he just turn a blind eye to it and not insist on successful results and periodic updates during the development stage? How could Sebelius, knowing the success of this project rested with her and her department?

Obama and Sebelius have each blamed the defects on software development companies, but it was their job to find these companies and set goals along the way. Some of that was done, but not nearly enough. In fact, at one point DHHS tested HealthCare.gov by logging on 200 people and the thing crashed almost immediately. And, yet, someone somewhere said it was good to go: Let’s just see what happens.

Stupid. Political. Mistake.

It would have been far less damaging for the feds to say the site didn’t work, we don’t know why and we’re going to delay the launch for a month (or more) until we get it right. But that didn’t happen, and this demonstration of incompetence and resulting public distrust leaves the whole ACA open to exactly what its critics were looking for: proof that it won’t work.

The government set deadlines for people to sign up for ACA and provided guidelines to help them understand what they had to do. Then it didn’t provide a registration platform that works. How many times is the average person going to attempt to log on, fail to get registered and decide they’re sick of trying. It’s a prescription for lost confidence in government’s ability to run this thing.

And now, Obama says, the feds will bring in the best, the heads of Google, Microsoft and Apple, for help. Why didn’t he bring in these top-notch people from the start?

It’s not like it’s an impossible job.

Washington state has signed up 49,000 people on its health benefit exchange and another 92,000 have started the application process. The United States government estimates it has registered about 4,000 people during the same time.

How did Washington state get this done?

What about Massachusetts, which has a system that works pretty well? The idea for ACA came from the Bay State. Maybe the feds could have gotten some computer ideas there, too.

Obama over-promised and didn’t deliver. He didn’t understand his own plan and how it was going to work.

Remember when he said signing up for health care would be as easy as shopping on Amazon?

It isn’t. Buying health insurance is ungodly complicated. A buyer’s income has to be verified and the site is supposed to generate estimates based on multiple factors, many of which change depending on where a person lives. It’s not like buying a frying pan or a book on Amazon.

Of course, the feds have provided a workaround for people who have not been able to sign up. They can call or apply by paper application. Thing is, a paper application isn’t going to give a shopper any comparisons of different plans, which is why registration was pushed to the Web: It’s interactive.

Obama has now said the “fix” for HealthCare.gov will be at least a month away, which indicates it will take more than a little tweaking to fix and is further evidence that planning for this program was so far off base. Worse, another month of repair is going to bring us dangerously close to the Jan. 1 launch of ACA-mandated health-care networks, creating unnecessary stress for those who want to buy in.

Every criticism raised about HealthCare.gov and its implementation is more than due.

If Apple launched a product and it failed and then Apple announced it would be fixed in a month, customers would walk away. That’s not acceptable in any kind of business, but health-care consumers don’t have the choice of walking away. They just have to wait, disillusioned and confused, until the feds develop a fix.

Kind of like so many people waited for help after Katrina.

But there and then, at least Brown had the good sense to resign.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


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