Lawmakers Shift Attention From Obamacare Website to Law

Even Republicans assume HealthCare.gov will be fixed, as both sides turn focus to more-lasting impacts of reform.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday about the troubled launch of the Healthcare.gov website.
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
Nov. 6, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

A few weeks ago, Pres­id­ent Obama de­fen­ded his sig­na­ture health care law as “more than a web­site”; now law­makers on both sides are in­creas­ingly tak­ing this po­s­i­tion as well.

Sen­ate hear­ings this week showed both parties shift­ing their Obama­care nar­rat­ives bey­ond the rocky rol­lout of the en­roll­ment web­site to how the law it­self will work more broadly. 

“Be­fore we get in­to the de­tails, I think every­one should take a deep breath,” Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, chair­man of the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, said Tues­day at the hear­ing with Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices Ad­min­is­trat­or Mar­ilyn Taven­ner. “This is, after all, a web­site. This is a ma­chine that will be fixed.”

Demo­crats ex­press­ing con­fid­ence that the web­site will be fixed is not sur­pris­ing, but Re­pub­lic­ans are not­ably as­sum­ing the same.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to fix the web­site,” said Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn. 

Both sides re­main con­cerned, but in the grand scheme, two months of web­site prob­lems — as­sum­ing it is run­ning suc­cess­fully by the end of Novem­ber — are less im­port­ant than how the law op­er­ates once the web­site is no longer stand­ing in its way.

On that point, however, law­makers re­main as po­lar­ized as ever.

“What I’m more con­cerned about,” Al­ex­an­der con­tin­ued, “are the can­celed policies and the in­ab­il­ity of people to have time, after you pre­sum­ably fix the web­site by the end of Novem­ber, to re­place their policies by Jan. 1 so they’ll ac­tu­ally have health in­sur­ance.”

For Re­pub­lic­ans, con­cerns like in­sur­ance-policy can­cel­la­tions and premi­um in­creases are in­dic­at­ive of lar­ger prob­lems with the law that need to be ad­dressed.

“The web­site’s not work­ing? Fine, let’s fix it,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, at a Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day with Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us. “But the law is not work­ing. Isn’t it time for a timeout so that we can go in and start find­ing out why we are see­ing premi­ums go up, not down; why we are see­ing people can­celed, not be­ing pro­tec­ted in their health care; why we are see­ing the fail­ure of the prom­ised op­er­a­tion of the law to oc­cur.” 

Demo­crats’ con­cerns, on the oth­er hand, are more fo­cused on missed out­reach and en­roll­ment.

“What, in your view, Madam Sec­ret­ary, could Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors here on the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee do to make the latest health re­forms a suc­cess the way the Medi­care pre­scrip­tion-drug pro­gram has been?” asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The sen­at­or drew an oft-made com­par­is­on to the now revered Medi­care Part D Pro­gram that had a no­tori­ously rough start as well.

“I think that it is al­ways wel­come to have elec­ted of­fi­cials in their home states give in­form­a­tion to con­stitu­ents about what the law says, what their op­tions are, what their be­ne­fits could be, what choices they have and how to ac­cess the pro­cess,” Se­beli­us re­spon­ded.

There is still much work to be done to fix the web­site this month. “I would say there are a couple of hun­dred func­tion­al fixes that have been iden­ti­fied,” Se­beli­us said. “It’s a pretty ag­gress­ive sched­ule to get to the en­tire punch list by the end of Novem­ber.”

Yet as im­prove­ments con­tin­ue to be made, law­makers are in­creas­ingly mov­ing bey­ond Health­Care.gov, and look­ing for­ward in terms of im­ple­ment­a­tion of the law.  

“Months ago I warned that if the im­ple­ment­a­tion didn’t im­prove, the mar­ket­places might struggle,” said Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D-Mont., of the in­fam­ous “train wreck” quote. “We heard mul­tiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case. But that’s in the past. Now it’s time to more for­ward to fig­ure out how to fix it.”

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