For 48 million uninsured Americans, the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges will provide a new set of plan options — and for some, premium assistance — that will open a pathway to coverage that doesn't break the bank.
Senate Democrats are worried that message is being clouded over by the bumpy rollout of HealthCare.gov.
At a hearing Thursday, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Obamacare has created "a crisis of confidence" among consumers who are receiving notices about plan cancellations and unable to obtain new coverage on the federal-exchange website.
"I'm going to be blunt, because I really want this to be a success," Mikulski said. "I think it's very confusing about where you go. People don't know. They really, really don't know."
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — the Health and Human Services agency responsible for implementing the federal exchange — has said that the state and the federal marketplaces have received roughly 700,000 applications for coverage.
They have promoted paper applications, in-person navigators, and the call center as alternatives to HealthCare.gov for consumers looking to sign up for health insurance.
CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner testified at the Senate Heath, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing. She acknowledged the plan cancellations and said CMS is working on an action plan to reach out to those Americans so that they know about new options on the exchange.
"Some 5 percent of Americans have received notices from their insurance companies suggesting that their plans will no longer exist," Tavenner said in her opening remarks. "These consumers do have a choice, they can shop for another plan from their insurer or they can shop on the new health-insurance marketplace."
But her words did not assuage the concerns of Republicans, who said though they disliked the new insurance program altogether, they were more worried about people who didn't get to keep the plans they liked.
"What I'm more concerned about are the canceled policies and the inability of people to have time to replace their policies prior to Jan. 1," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, remarked that the Republicans' efforts to thwart the law don't give them the right to be upset over HealthCare.gov's flaws.
But the Democrats largely agreed: People need to be able to shop for plans soon if the law is going to work.
"That ought to be job No. 1," said Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo. "Put the politics aside. Whether people can sit at the kitchen table and decide for themselves whether this is a better policy or not."
Tavenner said the website works now, but it will be fully functioning by the end of November. Some Senate Democrats have backed plans to extend the open-enrollment period or delay the individual mandate in an effort to give consumers more time because of the trouble they face when using HealthCare.gov.
"There are no plans to delay the individual mandate," Tavenner said.
How many Americans have successfully enrolled for coverage will be released next week, she added, as CMS is currently compiling the data. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during the hearing that her state's exchange has only enrolled three people. Early numbers leaked in CMS memos also showed low enrollment data in the first few days after HealthCare.gov's Oct. 1 launch, but HHS officials have pushed back on the numbers, saying they were not finalized and only discussed in site meetings.