Saturday, March 8, 2014
WASHINGTON – The botched rollout of the Obamacare insurance “marketplace” website, HealthCare.gov, achieved in three weeks’ time something that Republicans were unable to do in three years: prompt some Democrats to ponder delays or extensions.
To be clear, almost none of those Democrats want to scrap the entire Affordable Care Act – aka, Obamacare – as their Republican counterparts would prefer. But the growing frustration with the website’s failures is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that nine Senate Democrats have now joined New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in asking the Obama administration to “extend the open enrollment period if the healthcare.gov substantial technology glitches continue.”
As I wrote in a story in Friday’s paper (found here), Maine’s congressional delegation is split over whether an extension or other delays are necessary.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins wants to delay by one year the “individual mandate” that all persons have health insurance while and Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, D-District 2, said extending the open enrollment window – as Shaheen suggested – might be in order if the problems persist.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, have said they do not support an extension – at least not at this stage.
Each member had a lot more to say about this issue but I was unable to include all of their views in Friday’s article due to space constraints. So here is a summary of each person’s position (in alphabetical order):
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
Collins voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and has been a consistent critic of the law ever since. So it’s no surprise that the website’s rocky rollout hasn’t changed her perspective and that she sees the issues as symptoms of larger problems.
Her office released a statement Thursday in response to questions. Here are the excerpts:
“The difficulties and frustration that people in Maine and other states are experiencing with the federal website only serve to highlight the flaws in this ill-conceived law, which will lead to fewer choices and higher insurance costs for many middle-income Americans,” Collins said.
Collins said she found it “particularly troubling” that DHHS knew the system had problems but launched the website anyway on Oct. 1.
“Maine officials have said that the Administration’s failure to release data about the number of people who have successfully enrolled in the program has hampered their ability to do outreach,” she said. In response, Collins said she is reviewing proposed legislation that would require the administration to provide Congress with weekly updates on enrollments and the site’s problems.
“Consumers should certainly not be fined for failing to buy insurance when it is difficult to do so. This is yet another reason why the individual mandate should be delayed for a year, just as the President has delayed the employer mandate,” her statement read.
Collins tried to repeal or delay a medical device tax that helps pay for the Affordable Care Act as part of a proposal she put forward earlier this month to end the government shutdown and avoid a default. The change was not included in the final compromise, although it has had bipartisan support.
She is also co-sponsor of a bill that would change the definition of a full-time job from 30 hours per week – as it is currently defined in the law – to 40 hours per week. Some employers have cut back their employee hours in order to avoid having to offer health insurance once the law kicks in.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine
A supporter of Obamacare generally, King said Thursday in an interview with my colleague Steve Mistler (see video above) that he had “very little sympathy” for the Obama administration and the contractors responsible for the technological “disaster” of healthcare.gov.
The entire situation, King said, was “obscuring what should be a beneficial and positive development for people: the availability and affordability of health insurance.”
“Frankly, I think the administration was given a gift of the [government] shutdown obscuring the first two weeks of problems and they ought to be fixed by now,” he said. “I spent three hours on the first night and quit in utter frustration.”
Nonetheless, King said he wasn’t inclined to support the movement by Republicans, Shaheen and other Democrats to push back the enrollment deadline and phase-in of the individual mandate.
“I would just assume not take the pressure off the administration,” he said. “I think they ought to make it work. People have until the end of the year. I’m more focused on getting it to work.”
While King acknowledged that the state-run online “exchanges” are working better, he didn’t necessarily agree with those who contend healthcare.gov failed because it was overburdened by 36 states – including Maine – choosing to let the federal government run their exchanges.
“The feds knew, what, six months ago how many states they were going to have to handle,” he said. “They should have anticipated that. That’s no excuse.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-District 2
Michaud, who supports Obamacare, split with King and Pingree in saying that he believed an extension might be in order.
“Everyone is frustrated with the rollout,” Michaud said in a statement. “What’s broken needs to be fixed. In the process, the administration needs to be transparent about the steps they are taking to address these problems and the time it will take to get the online marketplace running smoothly. Given the major technical setbacks, I support extending the enrollment period.”
Responding to follow-up questions, Michaud spokesman Ed Gilman said that the Democratic congressman does not have a specific timeframe in mind but “an extension should be determined by how long it takes to address the technical errors.”
Gilman said that Michaud also contacted DHHS for Maine-specific enrollment figures but was denied, alongside seemingly all other members of Congress and journalists. The department has said it will not release figures until November, which critics view as the administration’s attempts to hide embarrassingly low enrollment numbers.
“The congressman believes sharing these numbers would be valuable because it would help determine the success of outreach efforts as well as the extent of the technical problems’ impact on the ability of Mainers to enroll,” Gilman said.
Michaud, who is running for governor against Republican Gov. Paul LePage next year, has also disagreed with the LePage administration’s decision to not set up its own state exchange.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1
Pingree said she was “very disappointed and very frustrated” that the problems with the website were slowing implementation of what she views as an overwhelmingly positive law that will help expand the availability of health care.
“None of that means we should stop moving forward,” Pingree said. While she said prolonged problems could prompt her to revisit the issue, she did not support an extension on Thursday.
“I’m not ready to declare that we should make any major changes or delay,” Pingree said in an interview. “There’s still five months left [to enroll] and that is still a lot of time.”
That said, Pingree was not sugar-coating her frustrations with the situation as she watched a Republicans – who have voted more than 45 times in the House to repeal Obamacare – attempt to capitalize on the website’s problems.
“There is a huge political effort going on [against Obamacare] that is just exacerbated by the problems with the website,” she said. “That is a ridiculous mistake that the administration should not have made. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do this.”
Pingree was less concerned than some of her Maine colleagues about finding out how many Mainers have enrolled, saying instead that the focus needs to be on fixing the glitches – and quickly.
“We know there are lots of people out there who are interested,” she said.
Disclosure: Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareowner of Maine Today Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.
Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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