Republicans and Democrats clung to their traditional rhetoric as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified again before Congress, this time answering questions about the Obamacare website at the Senate Finance Committee.
The committee’s Democrats told Sebelius the implementation of the president’s signature legislative achievement must go smoothly to provide Americans with the affordable health care that the Obama administration promised, and that means a fully-functioning website by the end of November. “There is no room for error,” said Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. “You must beat that deadline.”
Meanwhile, Republicans expressed discontent with the law altogether, using the faulty website as a launching pad for complaints and questions about higher premiums, training for “navigators,” assistance for small businesses, plan cancellations and data security.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Sebelius to appear once a month for the next six months with updates about the implementation of the law. “I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with,” Hatch said. “You had to have several indications before Oct. 1 that there were problems with the website and with the exchanges.”
Baucus quoted John F. Kennedy in his opening remarks, providing “Let us not despair but act” as a mantra for getting the health law right. He said having the website running smoothly by Nov. 30 was not good enough and that, despite calls for her resignation, it was Sebelius’s job to fix it. Sebelius committed to having the website fixed and operational.
“Access to HealthCare.gov has been a miserable experience for far too many Americans,” she said.
However, she also called attention to progress that has been made. “We have a system in place to identify and fix bugs in the system,” she said.
Where it once took eight seconds for pages to load, it now takes less than a second, she said. The agency can process approximately 17,000 registrants per hour “with almost no errors” and users are now seeing eligibility results, rather than blank screens, after completing an application. Faulty data sent to insurers continues to be an issue the agency is working on, however.
Sebelius said they would release the number of Americans who have successfully enrolled for Obamacare coverage next week.
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"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”
The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.
President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."
Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.