Rebellion brews over O-Care fix

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The administration is risking rebellion from some Democrats in Congress if it fails to deliver on its promise to fix HealthCare.gov by the Nov. 30 deadline set by President Obama. 

By and large, Democratic lawmakers have held their fire to give Obama’s team space to fix the technical problems that have stalled the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

If the president’s team fails to deliver, Democrats will embrace legislation extending the law’s enrollment period or forcing insurance companies to continue offering plans that do not meet ObamaCare’s standards, according to Democratic aides.

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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), whose home state of New Hampshire does not have a state-run healthcare exchange and must depend on the faulty federal website, has proposed extending the enrollment period and delaying penalties.

“The Shaheen bill becomes ascendant,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “The Shaheen bill is what directly addresses the website not working, by extending the time for people to sign up.”

At a closed-door meeting late last month, Shaheen grilled administration officials about whether they had a contingency plan in case the technical problems were not fixed by Nov. 30. Senior officials said they were working on one but declined to share details, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the meeting. 

Another proposal that could see a surge of support is legislation sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would force insurance companies to continue offering plans that fail to meet ObamaCare’s requirements through the end of 2015.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has a similar proposal that would mandate insurance companies allow people to keep their health plans indefinitely. It has attracted support from Democrats up for reelection in 2014, such as Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.).

When asked last week whether he would join his home-state colleague in supporting the Landrieu bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he would assess his options after Nov. 30.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), a one-time member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said the administration knows there’s a lot riding on getting the website fixed by the end of the month.

“There’s so much pressure to make that happen, I expect that they’re consulting the best people they can find on the planet to correct these problems,” he said.

“The future of the Affordable Care Act depends on these things working. All of them understand the pressure they’re under to get this right.”

Dorgan said the website likely won’t be “error free” by the deadline, but he expects that by Nov. 30 “there will be substantial improvements.”

A second Democratic aide said the party’s incumbents in the chamber facing reelection next year will begin to panic if the Department of Health and Human Services misses another important deadline set by the president.

“If the website is not up, the administration and 2014ers are going to start freaking out even more,” said the aide.

A White House official said Monday, “we’ve said the website will work smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November and are on track to do so.”

The administration’s tech team says it has shortened the average wait time on HealthCare.gov from eight seconds to less than one second for a page to load. It claims to have cut the error rate per page to less than 1 percent as well.

“Democratic members in Congress are definitely frustrated, and if things don’t get cleared up they’re going to get more frustrated,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist and former longtime Senate aide.

“But I think everyone is banking on, if it’s not 100 percent, it will be significantly improved and more people will be signing up.”

Chris Kofinis, another Democratic strategist and former Senate aide, said neither members of Congress nor the public would tolerate a sudden announcement that the administration had missed its Nov. 30 deadline.

“The only way you start fixing the situation is by being very clear, direct and specific about everything,” he said.

“If you’re not going to meet the deadline, you have to come out there and say why. If you keep playing the spin game, it only ends up blowing up in your face.”

Some Democrats have privately expressed doubt about some members of Obama’s healthcare team.

Michael Hash, the director of the administration’s Office of Health Reform, has met with Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks to explain the technical problems afflicting the law’s implementation. He worked for the Health Care Financing Administration (now called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) under former President Clinton.

“Does Mike Hash assuage people’s concerns? I don’t see it,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “When Hash was at HCFA, Internet Explorer was cutting-edge Web technology.”

Some Democrats say the administration needs to take the offensive and put the public focus on the positive changes ushered in by the Affordable Care Act.

“The question becomes, do we get back to the essentials of the larger message? People are getting so much back from the law. The people who have to register for new plans on the federal website make up a relatively small percentage,” the aide said.

While fewer than 27,000 people have enrolled in new health plans through HealthCare.gov as of last week, signups for expanded Medicaid services have exceeded expectations.

People have benefited from other reforms, such as young adults being allowed to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26.

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