Democratic Senators Deliver Obamacare Complaints

Senate Democrats seeking re-election next year aired complaints about the troubled roll-out of the health-care law during a meeting today with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.

Fifteen Senate Democrats whose terms are up in 2014 came to the two-hour discussion set up by the White House, along with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who heads the party’s Senate campaign arm. Jeffrey Zients, who Obama drafted to oversee repairs to the federal website intended to enroll uninsured Americans for coverage, also attended.

The senators, whose re-election chances are vulnerable to any public backlash against the Affordable Care Act, have become more outspoken with their concerns. Some are urging an extension of the law’s March 31 deadline to obtain health insurance.

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“The roll-out of healthcare.gov has not been smooth -- to say the least,” Senator Mark Udall of Colorado said in an e-mailed statement. “Consumers should have the time they need to shop for a plan and enroll after the widespread problems with the website are fixed.”

Senator Jeff Merkley called it “a show-me moment” for the administration. “For each day of delay, the window for applications should be extended by a day,” the Oregon Democrat said in a statement.

Website Flaws

Since opening Oct. 1, the website serving 36 states has been plagued by delays, error messages and hang-ups that prevented customers from completing applications. As a result, the Obama administration has lowered expectations for initial enrollment. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a Senate panel today those numbers will be released next week.

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said the meeting was convened after “a number of conversations between senators concerned about their constituents’ difficult or frustrating experiences with the Affordable Care Act website.”

The gathering wasn’t listed on Obama’s public schedule. It took place before Obama left Washington for Dallas, where he met with volunteers helping uninsured Texans enroll under the Affordable Care Act. Bennet joined Obama on the trip, which also includes a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Nothing’s going to stop us from getting this done,” Obama said in Dallas. “We’re on the right side of history.”

Obama’s Reaction

The president’s “frustration is real” and he’s focused on getting the website fixed, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters en route to Dallas.

He didn’t directly answer questions about whether the administration would consider extending the deadline, as some of the Senate Democrats are pressing for.

“That’s a lengthy enrollment period,” Carney said of the six months that are given under the law. “We still believe that there is time available.”

Insurer Humana Inc. is anticipating some concession by the Obama administration, including a possible extension of the open enrollment period beyond March, said James Murray, chief operating officer for the Louisville, Kentucky-based company.

“There’s a problem with the enrollment, and because of that, the likely enrollment that we’ll receive will be changed from what we thought,” Murray told investors today on an earnings conference call. “We’re waiting for guidance from the government.”

Sebelius Testifying

For the second time in a week, Obama was traveling to promote the law on the same day that Sebelius was testifying before a congressional committee about flawed start of enrollments.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said implementation of the 2010 law he helped write has been unacceptable. It’s disappointing that Sebelius and others in the Obama administration “say they didn’t see the problems coming,” Baucus said at the hearing.

Baucus urged Sebelius to “meet, and I’d prefer you beat” an end-of-the-month deadline for repairing the insurance exchanges as the agency overseeing the fixes shook up management.

Some senators said they were misled about the readiness of the healthcare.gov site and urged Sebelius to delay the deadline for Americans to buy insurance.

“There is a long track record of broken promises and untruthful answers to both this committee and the American people,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican said.

Enrollment Targets

The administration had a target of 800,000 Obamacare sign-ups for the first two months and the Congressional Budget Office has projected that 7 million people would enroll through 2014. Americans have until Dec. 15 to enroll in coverage that would start Jan. 1. Those who don’t find health insurance by March 31 may have to pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of their income.

Sebelius said today the initial enrollment from October will be “very low,’” though she declined to provide specific figures, saying a full report will be released next week.

“Until the site is improved and we really open up the doors wide to more people, we’re going to have a struggle to get significant numbers of people signed up,” she said.

“It’s unacceptable, I am focused on fixing it, and I am accountable,” Sebelius said.

While Sebelius today steered clear of discussing her future or that of her deputies, the agency that oversaw the building of the exchanges disclosed the departure of a top administrator. Tony Trenkle is leaving his job as the chief information officer of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services after Nov. 15, according to a letter to employees.

Trenkle, who had been with the agency since 2005, oversaw $2 billion in annual technology spending, including the money used to help build the Obamacare exchange website.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net; Margaret Talev in Dallas at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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