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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Whistle-blower? Not So Much

An ad from a Democratic group claims that Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick “blew the whistle on the disastrous health care website.” But Kirkpatrick didn’t expose any secret wrongdoing. She merely criticized HealthCare.gov in mid-November, weeks after the site’s launch, by which time its technical issues were well known.

The TV spot from House Majority PAC, a group that supports Democrats running for House seats, is a response to attack ads from the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which is targeting Kirkpatrick and fellow Arizona lawmaker Ron Barber, among other Democratic members of Congress. We wrote about an AFP ad targeting Barber this week, and in November, we gave readers the full story on an insurance anecdote AFP highlighted in an ad against Kirkpatrick.

The House Majority PAC ad, which was launched Jan. 16, says Kirkpatrick “blew the whistle on the disastrous healthcare website, calling it ‘stunning ineptitude,’ and worked to fix it.” A graphic on the screen cites a Nov. 15, 2013, press release from Kirkpatrick that said: “The stunning ineptitude of the ACA marketplace rollout is more than a public relations disaster. It is a disaster for the working families in my Arizona district who badly need quality, affordable health care.” The press release defended Kirkpatrick’s vote against a bill from Republican Rep. Fred Upton that would have allowed insurance companies to renew and continue to sell plans in 2014 that don’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s benefit requirements or don’t adhere to the law’s consumer protections.

Kirkpatrick, who voted for the Affordable Care Act, certainly criticized the malfunctioning website, but “blew the whistle”? That’s a stretch, to say the least. A whistle-blower is someone who draws attention to secret wrongdoing. By Nov. 15, HealthCare.gov’s troubles were anything but secret.

Visitors to the site were keenly aware of the crawling speed and technical glitches immediately, when the site launched on October 1. Later that month, on October 21, President Obama said there was “no sugarcoating” the site’s problems.

Obama, Oct. 21: But the problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.

The next day, Obama appointed Jeff Zients, an economic adviser and former CEO, to spearhead efforts to fix the site. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that more experts from government and Silicon Valley were being tapped as part of a “tech surge” to improve the site. Zients said a few days later that the site would “work smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of November. “The HealthCare.gov site is fixable. It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed,” he said.

At that point, in late October, hearings were underway on Capitol Hill in which private contractors who built the site said it was launched without adequate testing. By Nov. 15, Kirkpatrick was among a chorus of critics of the site’s launch, not a whistle-blower.

As for the ad’s claim that Kirkpatrick “worked to fix it,” she did introduce legislation on Dec. 12 to help people who were trying to sign up for insurance through the exchange. Kirkpatrick’s bill would allow those who signed up late for an exchange plan (by Jan. 31) to get retroactive insurance coverage to Jan. 1. Thirty-one Democrats have cosponsored it, but no action has been taken on the bill.

— Lori Robertson