President Barack Obama moved to quell growing dissent among Democratic lawmakers over the troubled rollout of his signature health-care law, summoning senators facing re-election for a two-hour White House meeting.
Fifteen Senate Democrats whose terms are up in 2014, along with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who heads the party’s Senate campaign arm, aired complaints about the flawed federal website for enrolling in an insurance plan and several pressed to postpone the Affordable Care Act’s deadline to obtain coverage, according to several lawmakers present.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon called yesterday’s meeting “a show-me moment” for the administration.
“The dysfunction and delays are unacceptable,” Merkley said in a statement afterward. “For each day of delay, the window for applications should be extended by a day.”
Since opening Oct. 1, the federal 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 yesterday those numbers will be released next week.
In addition, Republicans are accusing Obama of misleading the public as hundreds of thousands of individual health insurance plans are being canceled, contradicting his repeated pledge that people who like their coverage would be able to keep it when the law took effect.
The Obama administration has rebuffed calls to extend the deadline for enrollment.
“For millions of Americans delay is not an option,” Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee, her second appearance before a congressional panel in a week.
Obama left the meeting with the senators for a trip to Dallas, the U.S. city with the most uninsured residents eligible to participate in the federal marketplace -- 670,000 in 2011 -- according to data from the Census Bureau and the White House. He was there to rally volunteers helping to sign up uninsured Texans who’ve been stymied by the faulty website.
“Nothing is going to stop us from getting this done, because we’re on the right side of history,” Obama told the interfaith group at Temple Emanu-El.
Jeffrey Zients, who Obama drafted to oversee repairs to the federal healthcare.gov website and was in the meeting with the Democratic senators, has promised to have the job finished by the end of the month.
Some of the Democratic lawmakers at the White House session, whose re-election chances are vulnerable to any voter backlash against the 2010 law known as Obamacare, said that wasn’t enough.
“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 after the meeting. “Consumers should have the time they need to shop for a plan and enroll after the widespread problems with the website are fixed.”
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 yesterday on an earnings conference call. “We’re waiting for guidance from the government.”
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 yesterday the initial enrollment from October will be “very low,’” though she declined to provide specific figures.
“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.
In Dallas, where he also spoke at two fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Obama sought to turn the tables on Republican critics. Texas Governor Rick Perry is among the Republican state executives who have refused to set up a state insurance exchange and turned down an expansion of the federal Medicaid program that’s a provision in the law.
“Ideology has taken precedence over common sense and helping people,” Obama said at the first fundraiser, held at the home of Dallas lawyer Peter Kraus. The president referred to Perry’s stance as “bullheadedness” and said that expanding Medicaid in the Lone Star state would help 1 million people there find insurance.
About one in four Texans were uninsured in 2012 compared with 16.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area had an uninsured rate of 24.3 percent.