Obamneycare to Google Health: Health Reform Flops in 2011

In 2011, a health reform initiative from one of the most powerful organizations in the world flopped. The initiative started with high expectations but fizzled when offered to the public. This is the eulogy for “Obamneycare,” President Barack Obama’s health reform initiative, but also describes Google health, an even more disappointing flop.

President Obama had high expectations for comprehensive reform when he began rallying Congress to turn his “Obamneycare” plan into law. His expectations came from a successful pilot project and from industry support. The pilot occurred in Massachusetts where former Governor Mitt Romney (the “-ney” in Obamneycare) had increased access to care through an individual health insurance mandate. Proposing federal expansion of this mandate helped the president win support for Obamneycare from industry groups like the America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and the American Medical Association (AMA), and this support also fueled expectations for success.

Along with the individual mandate, the president called for government-sponsored health insurance. These “public option” health plans would compete against private insurers and thereby constrain health care costs. Unlike the individual mandate, this component of Obamneycare failed to gain wide support and Congress omitted the idea from their health reform bill. Still, President Obama signed the bill in a grand public ceremony. While some called the event a “big f---ing deal,” the pomp disguised disappointment. Since the congressional bill failed to address costs, the law accomplished only a part of the president’s plan. Thus, the signing marked the beginning of Ombamneycare’s flop.

The flop culminated in 2011 when the Supreme Court agreed to hear critics’ arguments against the health reform law. These lawsuits represent public dissatisfaction with the law and demonstrate that disappointment with Congress’ manifestation of Obamneycare has overwhelmed early support for the reform initiative. The Supreme Court’s willingness to hear the case and consider overturning the law affirms this shift. Although the law may live on, Obamneycare has flopped.

Unfortunately, the White House wasn’t the only powerful organization that struggled with health reform plans this year. Like President Obama, Google launched a health reform initiative to high expectations. This initiative was Google Health, a personal health record (PHR) system. They foresaw this product as the Gmail of health records. Just as Google’s e-mail client was not the first on the market, Google Health was not the first offering for patients who wanted to “organize, track, monitor, and act on [their] health information.” And just as Gmail revolutionized e-mail, the company expected Google Health to take over record-keeping in the health care industry.

Strong corporate partners also bolstered Google’s expectations. Prior to launch, Google worked with the Cleveland Clinic for over a year to beta-test the product. They received positive feedback from clinicians at the care center and found patients similarly eager to use the service. In addition to the Cleveland Clinic, a number of large companies also signed on. The list of partners included CVS Caremark, Allscripts, Kmart Pharmacy, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

But again, like Obamneycare, a heady start failed to propel the health reform initiative to success. Rather than achieving a broad impact, in the three years since its launch, Google Health achieved adoption only “among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients ... and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts.” By comparison, the company garnered over 40 million users in less than six months for the Google+ social network (an effort that most deem mildly successful by Google standards). Because of this paltry user base, the company admitted the platform was a flop and announced Google Health will close on January 1, 2012.

Although similar, the health reform flop by Google was actually more disappointing than President Obama’s. This is because the company’s failure was unexpected. While the president’s struggle in the partisan morass of Washington, D.C. was predictable, Google’s difficulties were a surprise. The company had all the right pieces in place — a carefully honed product and industry backing — and still, Google Health disappointed.

If the company that can “do no evil” flopped trying to reform health care, who will succeed? This question remains unanswered as 2011 ends.

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