When the history of the 2010 Affordable Care Act is written far in the future, the major conclusion is likely to be: How could the Obama administration have handled it so poorly?
The latest kerfuffle came in the closing hours of an ordinary business day, when the administration quietly posted on its websites the mind-blowing information that big businesses would not be penalized if they don't meet a key tenet of the plan by 2014, as they have been told for three years.
Companies with 50 or more full-time employees that fail to offer health insurance won't be penalized, by at least $2,000 per employee, until 2015. This change stems from pressure put on the government by industries that hire farmworkers and restaurant workers. There was concern that some companies that hire low-wage workers weren't ready or were planning to skirt the requirement by cutting weekly hours to below 30 for workers. On the other hand, most large companies already offer insurance.
If you're a business affected by this delay, you may be temporarily relieved, but you are also tearing your hair out, wondering how you're supposed to plan for all the rules the administration keeps changing.
From the beginning, President Barack Obama was never able to explain adequately his grandiose idea for reducing the number of Americans -- more than 45 million -- without health insurance. He let Republicans demean the plan, inaccurately, by saying it would create "death panels" and "socialized medicine."
Obama gave speeches. He pleaded with Congress to pass his plan. He outlined the need for reform. But he never made his plan resonate with the American people. Now Republicans are salivating at the idea that they can go on the attack again, vowing to repeal "Obamacare" in Congress (the Supreme Court already struck down a legal challenge) because years after passage millions of Americans have no idea what it will mean for them.
Americans like the tenets of the law that already have gone into effect: more preventive care for seniors and the ability of parents to keep children up to 26 on their own health insurance plans.
But reports that young, healthy workers will have to pay more for insurance and that workers who opt not to get health insurance will have to pay higher taxes are creating widespread anxiety. And nobody from the administration seems able to offer reassurance that overall the outcome will benefit the majority of Americans.
Some businesses are hoping the delay, announced with no fanfare and little explanation, is a signal that implementation of key parts of the law can be delayed or put off all together, and that they will never have to abide by it.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said the administration was cynically delaying implementation of the "train wreck" until after the 2014 elections, which will determine if Republicans keep control of the House and Democrats keep control of the Senate. Presumably, companies that might have cut workers' hours to avoid penalties will now not do that, at least for a year.
Democrats retorted that Republicans still have not put forth viable alternatives to the mandate that employers provide health insurance and that Republicans are always "against" but never "for" solutions.
If health care overhaul is to be Obama's big legacy, he has a lot more work to do.