Ten Senate Democrats, including seven facing re-election next year, are backing away from their party by calling for changes to the federal health-care program.
The senators are seeking an extension of the deadline for people to join health-care exchanges because of “substantial technology glitches” with healthcare.gov, the primary way for consumers to shop for insurance. Website failures have made it harder for people to compare coverage and enroll in the U.S. plans before March 31 or face penalties.
In a letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the senators said they are “discouraged and frustrated with the problems.” The letter was released today by its author, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat.
“Extending this period will give consumers critical time in which to become familiar with the website and choose a plan that is best for them,” according to the letter. “Individuals should not be penalized for lack of coverage if they are unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems.”
Sebelius, at a news conference today in San Antonio, said the department isn’t discussing an extension because any change in dates has “subsequent consequences” for insurance providers. Earlier today, in Austin, Texas, she said she didn’t realize the site wouldn’t be “operating optimally” before its Oct. 1 debut.
“We’re making some progress,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters today traveling with President Barack Obama to New York. “We’re less than four weeks into a six-month enrollment here.”
Jeffrey Zients, the consultant Obama named this week to resolve the website’s flaws, said today the exchanges will be fixed by December. Management of the website project has been reorganized and a lead contractor has taken over, Zients said on a conference call in Washington.
Obama’s administration has the authority to extend the enrollment period without congressional approval, said Amber Moon, a spokesman for North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, who signed Shaheen’s letter. The law allows Sebelius to determine the enrollment period and exempt individuals from the penalty.
The Obama administration this week announced a change that gives individuals six more weeks, or until March 31, to enroll without facing penalties. Under the law, anyone not covered for three months or longer faces a fine. For the insurance to take effect and avoid the fines, uninsured Americans would have had to sign up by Feb. 15.
The Democratic senators took a page from the playbook of 20 colleagues in their party who wrote Obama in July urging him to nominate Janet Yellen to become chairman of the Federal Reserve. Obama picked Yellen, currently the Fed’s vice chairman, for the top post this month.
The health-care letter, in which the senators note their support of Obama’s signature domestic achievement, could also force the president’s hand, said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“They’re going to have to give this a good, hard look,” Manley said in an interview.
Democrats in the U.S. Senate had refused, as part of budget negotiations, to discuss changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including a one-year delay of the requirement for individuals to enroll in the insurance exchanges.
The fight over the law, known as Obamacare, contributed to the 16-day partial government shutdown and led to a record low favorability rating for Republicans in a Gallup Poll. In the week since Republicans yielded and government opened, they’ve shifted tactics and are highlighting the website’s flawed debut.
A House hearing yesterday was the first salvo in the fresh line of attack, as Republicans blamed Obama’s administration for the shortcomings of the health-insurance website that contractors said wasn’t adequately tested.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been focused on fixing the health-care program’s website.
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who supports delaying the individual mandate, is crafting a bill to delay the $95 penalty for not enrolling. Hagan yesterday said the enrollment deadline should be postponed by two months. The Democrats’ letter didn’t specify a new deadline.
Shaheen’s letter was signed by four Senate Democrats running for re-election next year in states Obama lost in 2012: Hagan, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Also signing were Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico, whose terms also end next year, along with Dianne Feinstein of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
Bennet is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
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