GOP set to jump on low Obamacare enrollment numbers

First test will focus on keeping insurance plans

The Obama administration is set to release Obamacare enrollment data this week, figures that promise to be low and likely will feed further into Republican attempts to discredit the health care law.

House GOP leadership has set some plans in motion, hoping to parlay a presidential apology and ugly headlines about the law’s rocky start into passage of a bill that lets Americans keep their existing health plans, even if they do not meet new standards outlined in the reforms.

The chamber will vote Friday on the Keep Your Health Plan Act, offering a key test to Democrats who are nervous about early flaws in the rollout of Obamacare.

“Actions speak louder than words. If the president is serious about offering relief to Americans whose health plans are being canceled, then he should strongly support the Keep Your Health Plan Act,” Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, said. “This bill is a simple solution that would begin to restore health care peace of mind.”

The House has voted about 40 times to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act or alter it in some way, a series of actions that have died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But those votes occurred before the Oct. 1 launch of websites tied to the law. The federal version, HealthCare.gov, serves 36 states and has experienced rampant glitches that prevent customers from enrolling in a new health plan.

The dynamic put pressure on Mr. Obama to apologize for saying Americans could keep the plans they liked. Millions of Americans are receiving cancellation notices because their existing plans do not meet Obamacare’s standards, and the troubled website prevents them from finding better deals through federally facilitated and state-run insurance exchanges.

Last week, the administration reported mixed progress in fixing the federal website, as Republicans piled on criticism by saying taxpayers should get a refund for the flawed $400 million portal.

Jeff Zients, the management specialist tapped to fix HealthCare.gov, said his repair team knocked items off its to-do list last week, reducing the time it takes for pages to load and improving users’ experiences on the front-end of the websites. However, capacity issues and software problems are cropping up as more users make it further into the enrollment process.

“We made progress this week, though again hit roadblocks that impacted the user experience and slowed us down,” he told reporters Friday in a conference call.

The IRS began its own set of fixes over the weekend, meaning its role in the federal data hub that verifies enrollees’ personal data will not be available from Saturday to early Tuesday. Users can still use most aspects of the federal site, which is supposed to connect people from 36 states with coverage options, but will have to come back this week to finish up their enrollment, said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Mr. Zients said he is working “around the clock” on patching up the site and that he is “not receiving any pay.”

Taxpayer money was at the forefront of Sen. Mark Kirk’s mind on Friday. One day after the Illinois Republican filed a bill with Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, that would delay the law’s individual mandate for one year, he said Americans “deserve a clear explanation and a refund of their money.”

Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, meanwhile, cast doubt on the District’s ability to enroll people on its exchange, which is run by the city and does not rely on HealthCare.gov.

They said that, based on data requests to the four insurers that offer plans on D.C. Health Link, only five people have enrolled.

“With numbers like these, it’s no wonder the Obama administration hasn’t wanted to release how many people have signed up for ObamaCare,” Mr. Hatch said. But D.C. exchange spokesman Richard Sorian said “that is not an accurate depiction of the strong level of interest in the District of Columbia in obtaining quality, affordable health insurance.”

He said as of Oct. 21, more than 12,000 city residents had created accounts on the site and 321 had selected a health plan for enrollment. Also, 426 small businesses had created accounts.

“Consumers have until Dec. 15 to finalize their selection by paying their first month’s premium in order to have coverage on Jan. 1, 2014,” he said, noting he cannot speak to what metric the senators were using because he had not seen their documentation.

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