Big Glitch in Obamacare’s iPhone Metaphor

Big Glitch in Obamacare’s iPhone Metaphor

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President Obama loves to compare his signature health care program to this fall’s other huge product launch: the iPhone.

With Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges opening today amid a government shutdown, the president responded to criticisms in their software to the somewhat buggy introduction by Apple of the new iOS7 operating system for iPhones.

 “Consider that just a couple of weeks ago Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system and within days they found a glitch, so they fixed it,” Obama said in a Rose Garden speech Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads, or threatening to shutdown the company if they didn’t.”

This is not the first time that the president has explained Obamacare through cell phones, but it shows how the administration is trying to sell the abstract idea of health insurance to the American public. It’s a metaphor that knows few limits in the administration, even if it should.

While plenty of Apple devotees lined up to buy the new iPhone 5s, there is little evidence that Americans feverishly bought insurance online on Tuesday.

Part of that is because of the nature of each product. A smart phone is a communications lifeline, a music and video player, and a game console, while insurance is a way to manage the price of medical treatment so that hospital bills should not overwhelm individuals and families.

In a TV interview last month, the president retorted to criticism about the costs of monthly premiums by saying, "People are potentially going to be able to get health insurance for less than their cell phone bill."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius also jumped on the bandwagon. “Hopefully they’ll give us the same slack they give Apple,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “If there’s not quite the operational excellence right away, we’ll continue to press for that.”

There is some overlap between insurance and mobile telephony. More than 90 percent of Americans have a cellphone, and 61 percent own a smart phone, according to polling released in June by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

About 85 percent of the country receives health coverage, a figure that the Congressional Budget Office projects to reach 90 percent under the Obamacare requirement that employers either provide or individuals buy insurance.

But the metaphor breaks down a bit with regard to price. A smart phone bill often exceeds $100 a month. According to an HHS report issued last month, about 48 percent of the 21.9 million uninsured Americans eligible to buy coverage on the exchanges will have monthly premiums—after tax credits—of less $100.

That still exceeds what most Americans spend on cell phones. According to data from the nonprofit industry group CTIA-The Wireless Association, the average monthly bill is just 47.50.