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ACA rollout tests Democrats

Bloomberg News

November 01. 2013 9:56PM

A month of stumbles in the rollout of President Barack Obama's health care law is raising anxiety among his Democratic allies in Congress and testing the unified front the party maintained through the government shutdown.

Democratic senators shot questions at White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other administration officials responsible for the health exchange website at a lunch at the Capitol yesterday, said a Senate Democratic aide. The tone of the meeting wasn't confrontational because Democrats see their fates as tied to Obamacare's success, said the aide, who asked for anonymity to describe private talks.

Still, reassurances the administration offered in the meeting didn't alleviate the concerns of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, said the aide. Shaheen is a Democratic critic of the administration's performance with the health care law's rollout, and is up for reelection next year.

Shaheen said in an Oct. 29 interview that her constituents "are still having difficulties trying to sign up."

The flawed debut of the federal website is tarnishing the health care law, Obama's signature legislative achievement, and is complicating his second-term agenda.

Forty-eight percent of Americans said the federal government is doing a "poor" job of implementing the health law, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Friday. The law maintained plurality support in the survey, with about 47 percent saying it should be kept or expanded, compared with 37 percent who said they want it repealed.

Shaheen organized a public letter to the administration from 10 Democratic senators, later endorsed by an 11th senator, asking for an extension of the insurance exchange's open enrollment period beyond the current March 31 deadline. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Obama responded with promises that the website will be fixed in plenty of time for Americans to enroll.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced he is drafting legislation with Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia to postpone the law's $95 penalty for failing to obtain health insurance, a core provision that the White House has insisted on maintaining without delay.

Firings demanded

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democrat facing reelection in a state that backed Obama's Republican opponents in 2008 and 2012, said in an interview this week that Obama should fire some staff members to hold them accountable for the website's problems. She stopped short of joining demands from Republicans for Sebelius's resignation.

Vice President Joe Biden met on Oct. 28 with freshman House Democrats concerned about the health-care website's flaws in the office of Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the party's second-ranking House leader.

John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate Republicans' third-ranking leader, who a few weeks ago was among those struggling to hold his party together during the government shutdown, said he sees the Democrats' united front is "starting to show some cracks" on Obamacare.

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2014 election

"The Democrats realize how bad this is, and if you listen to people across the country about rate increases, loss of coverage, dropped coverages, the Democrats are feeling that," Thune said. "If you're an in-cycle Democrat, a 2014 Democrat, I think you're going to go increasingly sympathetic to the idea that all of parts of this should be delayed."

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the chamber's third-ranking Democrat, disputed the idea that the health care law would damage his party's members in next year's election. He said the website's initial flaws "will be forgotten rather quickly in our fast-moving world."

"There are problems, obviously, with the computers and all of that," Schumer said. "But once those are fixed, and I think they will be, everyone's going to be focusing on who's signing up and what they're getting for it, and that's going to be the key issue."

Enrollment hindered

The Obamacare health-insurance exchanges enrolled 248 people in their first two days, as website outages and software errors hindered sign-ups, according to documents obtained by a congressional oversight committee.

Notes from three meetings at an Obama administration "war room," obtained by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, show six people had enrolled on Oct. 1, the first day of the website's operation. The summary of an Oct. 2 meeting said "direct enrollment is still not working" and about 40,000 applicants idled in a virtual "waiting room."

Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The documents were circulated by Republican opponents of the health law who are seizing on the botched rollout even as a new poll shows more Americans than not want to expand Obamacare or keep it intact. About 7 million people, mostly those who are uninsured, are supposed to gain medical coverage in 2014 through exchanges created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Long waits

About 8.6 million people visited the federal website in the first week, and most were greeted by long waits that prevented many from registering. Department of Health and Human Services officials have said capacity is being added to the system and upgrades are being made to the software code, though as of two days ago error messages were still being displayed.

Jeffrey Zients, the former Office of Management and Budget official that Obama appointed Oct. 22 to help sort out the website's troubles, has said the site will work smoothly by the end of November. The deadline to enroll in plans that begin on Jan. 1, is Dec. 15.

Getting the site fixed soon is critical as Americans who don't have health insurance by March 31 may have to pay a fine of 1 percent of their income or $95, whichever is higher.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans also have received notices that their individually purchased insurance plans have been canceled because of provisions of the health law, contradicting Obama's repeated pledges that people who like their coverage can keep it.

Obama's job-approval ratings hit a record low in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Oct. 30 that illustrated the political damage from the health law's troubled rollout.

Forty-two percent of Americans surveyed gave Obama a favorable rating, with 51 percent expressing disapproval, according to the poll. That's down from a favorable rating of 47 percent earlier in October and 53 percent at the end of last year, according to the poll.

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