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Some Democrats open to changing Obamacare deadlines

Chris Moody
Yahoo News
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Secretary of Health and Human services has defied calls to step down.

Affordable Care Act supporters are hoping the embarrassing rollout problems with the law's implementation can be resolved quickly, but if they can't, some Democrats are opening the door to delaying or extending some of the mandates in the 2010 law.

“If the problems are intense as they are this morning, then maybe we would have to consider a short delay in terms of the individual mandate,” New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, a member of the Health subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said on Wednesday. “I say, 'maybe.' I have a good feeling that we’re going to overcome these things.”

Pascrell made the comments after attending a briefing led by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services officials Gary Cohen and Julie Bataille on the state of the law’s implementation. Talk of delaying the mandate did not come up during the private meeting, he said.

Democrats are frustrated that HealthCare.gov, the website where Americans in 36 states can access the health insurance exchanges established by the ACA, still does not function properly three weeks after its Oct. 1 launch. Because of glitches on the site, many users are unable to create accounts or sign up for insurance. The current period of enrollment in the federal exchanges lasts until March 31.

But due to the inability to access the plans, Republicans and some Democrats are suggesting that some of the deadlines — including the individual mandate to buy insurance — be extended or delayed.

In the Senate, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin last month called for a one-year delay of the individual mandate, and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday sent a letter to the White House asking if those who could not access the exchanges would still be fined. In the letter, Shaheen also requested that the enrollment period be extended.

"Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll,” Shaheen wrote. "Further, in light of the difficulties individuals may be having with enrolling through healthcare.gov, I ask that you clarify how the individual responsibility penalty will be administered and enforced. If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage."

Pascrell, too, believes the enrollment period might be prolonged.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that time period was extended to make it longer,” he said. “Many of the people who are going on the website want to be educated.”

Most of the House Democrats who spoke to Yahoo News after the Wednesday meeting with CMS officials declined to speculate on whether they would support enrollment extensions or mandate delays. Instead, they emphasized “progress” being made to fix the site and that Americans seeking insurance could also access the exchanges on the phone or in person in their community.

“We’ll cross that path when we get to it,” New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley told Yahoo News. “I think it’s premature to talk about that.”

Party leaders were more explicit about their opposition to changing the deadlines. Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Xavier Becerra of California said delaying the individual mandate would “undermine” the law, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rejected talk of extending the enrollment period.

“I don’t support that,” Pelosi said after the briefing on Wednesday. “I think we should try to fix what we have, move forward with the deadline we have.”

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders, who continue to call for a delay of the mandates, said this week they were furious that Democrats received a briefing on the law but they did not. Through his spokesman, Republican House Speaker John Boehner called on Health and Human Services to offer the same briefing to his conference, calling it a “snub.”

“Far too much information about Obamacare’s rollout is being concealed from the public. All members —
as well as the American people — deserve answers for this debacle,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said on Tuesday.

A Democratic source who requested anonymity told Yahoo News, however, that White House officials offered on Sept. 25 to hold briefings with congressional Republicans — a week before the exchanges launched — but received no response.

Despite the dustup, the HHS contacted Boehner’s office again on Wednesday, according to Buck, and offered to conduct a briefing.

Next week, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the poor early implementation.

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