Obamacare Glitches Prove We Still Need the Post Office

The rollout of Obamacare is the perfect example of why digital communication is not always the best.

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A customer delivers his mail at a U.S. Post Office in San Jose, Calif., Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Unprecedented cuts by the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service will slow first-class delivery next spring and, for the first time in 40 years, eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day.

To those who are complaining about the U.S. Postal Service's proposal to raise the price of a first-class stamp by three cents, consider first the glitches that occurred on the first day of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges.

There's an artificial but fairly widespread belief out there that mail – dismissively called "snail mail," as though waiting an entire day or two have a letter hand-delivered to your residence is an appalling inconvenience – is outdated. Why go to the bother and expense of sending an actual physical document to someone when you can just email a note or document? Why not just let the Postal Service go the way of the Pony Express, giving way to a more efficient and tree-friendly way of communicating?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

A read of the stories on the first day of the exchanges explains why. The system crashed, largely because of massive interest in the program. Yes, people will likely be able to get the system to work in the coming weeks and months – there's plenty of time to shop for a health care plan before the individual mandate kicks in on  Jan. 1 – but the overload of the system proves that electronic communication is not always the most efficient or reliable. And as the Washington Post reports this morning, some people in Texas who arrived at an office hoping to sign up for health insurance found that they couldn't because they didn't have an email address. Some of them didn't even know what email was.

There is still a digital divide in this country, with populations of people who are not only not consumed with social media, but aren't even online. They shop in actual stores. They pay their bills by writing a check and mailing it off. They write letters to relatives. And unlike the Internet – where things can indeed get lost, and websites hacked or disrupted by spammers or hostile foreign governments – mail is pretty reliable. You put a letter in an addressed envelope, stick a stamp on it, drop it into any one of numerous mailboxes, and it tends to get to its intended recipient in a day or two. A pretty good bargain, at 46 cents.

Electronic communication is great. But just as Facebook "friends" can't replace an actual social life, email and websites can't make the Postal Service obsolete.

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