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The Obamacare Fix-It Frenzy: Congress Seizes on Rollout Flop

WASHINGTON – The disastrous launch of the Obamacare website has resulted in a stream of legislation to address some of the healthcare reform law’s perceived shortcomings – and not all of the bills are coming from Republicans.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are considering delaying the implementation of some pieces of the new law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act. Others are looking to alter some provisions to fulfill promises that were offered to the public before the law passed through Congress.

The Republican-led House already has voted at least 40 times to repeal the law. The new bills are limited to correcting what are considered deficiencies.

“It’s time for Washington Democrats to work with Republicans to start working for their constituents — instead of thinking that their first priority is to protect the president and his namesake legislation,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La), who plans to run for a third six-year term in 2014, has offered legislation that will permit consumers to retain the health insurance they carried prior to the adoption of Obamacare if they so desire.

During the lead-up to the law’s passage, President Obama repeatedly said those satisfied with their health insurance plan would not be negatively impacted by healthcare reform – they could keep their plan. That has not proved to be the case as thousands have complained that they have received letters from their insurance companies canceling their policies as a result of the new law.

Those policies are being voided, the White House explained, because they fail to meet the minimum coverage standards established under the Affordable Care Act and better insurance options will be made available. But the rationale has not proved suitable for some who say they now may have to pay higher premiums for options they don’t want. And the process is being made even more difficult as a result of “glitches” related to healthcare.com, the online marketplace intended to permit consumers to compare and purchase competing healthcare plans.

“One of the important components of that bill that many of us talked about was the fact that if someone had individual insurance on the market, they could keep it,” Landrieu said. “What is happening now, unfortunately, because of the grandfather provision in the Affordable Care Act, in my view…it was not written as tightly as it should have been, as clearly as it should have been.”

Landrieu said her legislation, the Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act, clarifies the language “so that it will clearly say that if a person has an insurance plan they like, if it is what they want and can afford, they can keep it.” Should the bill pass, and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, hasn’t indicated he will call it up, five million to seven million people expected to receive cancellation notices will be able to retain their old policies.

“We said to people that if they have insurance they like, they can keep it,” Landrieu said. “We didn’t say that if they have insurance they like that doesn’t meet the standards or that meets the minimum standards, they can keep it. We said, and the president said over and over, that if people have insurance and they like the insurance they have, they can keep it.”

The legislation, Landrieu said, is not intended to undermine Obamacare – “it is to strengthen it and to keep our promise to the millions of Americans.”

Thus far, Landrieu has attracted only one co-sponsor – Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Republicans are unlikely to hop on board since Landrieu is in a targeted race next year and they don’t want to do anything to help her effort.

That leads to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who intends to file similar legislation, the If You Like Your Health Care Plan You Can Keep It Act, with 37 Republican cosponsors that will grandfather in existing policies and void many of the coverage requirements found in the Obamacare law.

“The president said over and over that if Americans liked their insurance plans they could keep them,” Johnson said. “We now know this is not true. More than two million people have been told that the coverage they chose is no longer available. This is wrong. The president made a commitment to the American people. His own administration forecasts that 40 to 67 percent of people with individual policies will not, in fact, get to keep their plans. That’s unacceptable.”

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is offering companion legislation in the House.

“The President repeatedly guaranteed Americans that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan,’” DeSantis said. “Now that millions of Americans are seeing their policies canceled due to Obamacare, it is clear that this was a reckless deception designed to facilitate the law’s passage against the will of the people.”

Other lawmakers are offering proposals postponing the implementation of some of the law’s key provisions because of the ongoing wrestling match to fix healthcare.gov.

Under the Affordable Care Act, every American is required to obtain health insurance coverage by March 31, 2014, or face a penalty when they utilize medical services. Healthcare.gov was created to provide consumers with a side-by-side comparison of various policies, offer information on costs and permit those seeking coverage to apply. But the site has been plagued with problems like an inability to create an account or log in. Some consumers have received confusing error messages or have had to wait for slow page loads or forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion.

Those problems have foiled some from obtaining the required coverage, leading some lawmakers to seek a delay in implementing the Jan. 1 deadline.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) was one of the first out of the gate, offering the Obamacare Choice Act which delays the health insurance deadline for a year, until Jan. 1, 2015.

“This bill simply suspends the tax if you do not sign up,” Barton said. “All of us up here have voted to repeal it. We don’t like it. But we’re going to take a step back and let it go into place, but give people the option whether to enroll.”

Barton isn’t alone. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) is offering the Fairness in Failed Federal Exchange Act, which exempts individuals from paying the Obamacare noncompliance fine if they attest that they’ve been unable to enroll in an exchange as a result of technical problems.

Ellmers said she wanted to “provide a way out of this mess and offer some sanity to the pathetic rollout of this terrible law.”

“The American people deserve a reprieve from the failures of the Obama administration and should not be penalized because the White House can’t build a functioning website,” Ellmers said.

Along those same lines, Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) is offering the Health Care Access Fairness and Penalty Delay Act, which would give consumers 90 days to enroll in a healthcare plan after the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services certifies that the website is fully operational.

“I am angry that this website is not functioning – and until it is completely fixed, it is simply unfair to threaten people with fines,” Barber said.

The Senate is kicking ideas around about delaying the deadline. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has a bill that would delay the individual mandate until the Obamacare exchange website and all its enrollment processes have been fixed and are certified to be fully functional. Once that certification takes place, Americans would have an additional six months before being subject to taxes and penalties. Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) has filed companion legislation in the House.

“It is unacceptable that Americans will soon be forced to pay a fine for not purchasing insurance when the very websites they are supposed to use for purchasing it have been rendered useless from numerous glitches and technical errors,” Rubio said. “Americans already have too many financial burdens for Washington to go adding another useless and unjust tax, especially when that tax punishes the American people for the government’s own errors. I believe Obamacare must eventually be entirely repealed and replaced, but until that becomes possible we must continue to focus on protecting Americans from the law’s ongoing problems.”

Some Democrats are equally sympathetic to extending the deadline. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has sent a letter to the White House, signed by 10 Democrats, seeking an extension of the March 31 deadline. And Manchin is working with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) on legislation that would extend the deadline although the details have not been firmed up.