Democrats Express Misgivings About HealthCare.gov at Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee in the Longworth House Office Building October 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Tavenner is the first Obama Administration to testify before Congress since the troubled launch the federal exchange website. 'I want to assure you that Healthcare.gov can be fixed, and we are working around the clock to give you the experience that you deserve,' she said.  
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Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Nov. 5, 2013, 8:16 a.m.

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.

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