Why People Should Stop Referring To HealthCare.gov Problems As “Obama's Katrina”

Media figures are comparing the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina. This comparison ignores a crucial difference: Nobody has died because of problems with HealthCare.gov, whereas at least 1,833 people died as a result of Katrina.

The media have repeatedly referred to crises during the Obama administration as “Obama's Katrina.”

[Source: Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane KatrinaNOAA.gov]

The problems with the rollout of ACA include the malfunctioning website, problems with state health care exchanges, and confusion over insurance companies changing policies to comply with the law's requirements. In a November 14 press conference, President Obama announced changes that would accommodate people whose insurance policies have been canceled, while members of Congress are reportedly working on legislation to fix problems in the law.

To date, no major news outlet has reported that anyone has died as a result of the problems with the rollout of the law, though Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified to Congress that delays in implementing the law -- something Fox News has pushed for -- could lead to deaths.

After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, the Bush administration was criticized for its slow and inadequate response to the storm, which eventually took the lives of 1,833 people.

On November 15, The New York Times compared the loss of confidence in the Obama administration to the way the response to Katrina affected the George W. Bush administration:

President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy and Research noted that “the comparison to the response to Hurricane Katrina has to qualify as more than a bit over the top”:

People died because of the failed response to Katrina. For whatever reason, President Bush was unable to organize a response to a hurricane hitting a major American city even though its course and ferocity had been accurately predicted a week in advance. People in New Orleans died because they could not get access to food, water, and medical care. It seems more than a bit over the top to compare the difficulties that people are facing arranging for insurance to this sort of catastrophe.

Slate's Matthew Yglesias similarly noted that the comparison is flawed even in the most generous interpretation:

Obviously, George W. Bush and his administration are not responsible for all of those deaths. A storm's a storm. But let's be very generous to Bush and say that the underlying bad fundamentals are responsible for 95 percent of the damage and the bungled response gets just 5 percent of the blame. That's 91 dead people. How many people have died using HealthCare.gov? I'm pretty sure it's fewer than one. In fact, despite all the problems over 160,000 people have already gotten Medicaid.

Among the media figures who have made the comparison:

ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulous on Twitter: “How can President Obama recover from his Katrina?”

In a segment that aired on ABC's Good Morning America, Stephanopoulous said that “what happened with Katrina, once those questions about [Bush's] competence took hold” and asked former ABC political analyst and former Bush staffer Matthew Dowd if Obama is “in that kind of a position right now.” Dowd noted that the storm and the reform were “qualitatively different” but that parallels could be drawn.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote on Twitter: “President Bush did not design and enact Hurricane Katrina.”

Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera asked on the November 15 Fox & Friends: “Is this is like weapons of mass destruction? Is this like President George W. Bush after Katrina?”

Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt said on the November 14 Morning Joe: “I think Katrina may be the best analogy” to the handling of the ACA rollout.

The same problem holds for comparing the ACA rollout to the Iraq War:

[Source: Operation Iraqi Freedom Casualties, Defense.gov]