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Obamacare sign-up befuddles congressmen, too

Many have tales of woe trying to sign up, though some have had success

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For weeks, Capitol Hill lawmakers have heard stories of both frustration and success from folks back home trying to sign up for Obamacare. Now, lawmakers have their own tales to share.

Sen. Tom Coburn, a medical doctor, said he is at wit's end after his attempts to sign up, as the law requires him and every other member of Congress to do.

"It's a complete failure for me," said the Oklahoma Republican, noting that he has tried for days. "It won't let you progress. It freezes up."

He said he knows how to work a computer just fine, but he's got staff looking into it now.

"Eighteen times for me, and that's enough," he said.

Others, though, have had better luck, with Democrats who pushed the law to passage in 2010 seemingly more likely to report success than Republicans.

"It's gone pretty good," Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said. "Everything's fine."

Then there are the procrastinators, who say they'll get to it this week, or at least before the Dec. 9 deadline.

The Affordable Care Act requires Capitol Hill lawmakers and staffers in their official congressional offices to forfeit their government-sponsored health care plans and enroll in state-based insurance exchanges. The goal was to make lawmakers experience what many Americans face in the individual marketplace.

They are supposed to shop on the District of Columbia's small-business exchange, choosing from among 112 options in the gold-tier level of health care plans, according to guidance from the Obama administration. Unlike most other exchange users, the lawmakers will continue to have their employers — in this case, taxpayers — pay for most of their premiums.

Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat who faces re-election next year, announced last week that he had enrolled in Alaska's federally run exchange. By opting for his home state's exchange, he will not be eligible for any federal subsidy.

By many accounts, the D.C.-run exchange is working much better than its federal counterpart. Employees working with the House and Senate have reported "very positive feedback in terms of the number of choices, the range of prices, and the relative ease of using the system," D.C. Health Link spokesman Richard Sorian said.

Nonetheless, Republican disgust with President Obama's reforms and the rampant glitches that have wreaked havoc with the federal website, HealthCare.gov, loom over the task.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, joked he might outsource the job "to the Chinese, who hack into everything else — see if they can get me in."

Sen. Bob Corker Tennessee Republican, reported that he was able to set up a profile during his last attempt, but couldn't get much further into the process.

"I was on, and then I was off," he said. "I'll try again before I go home. Because we know, left to my own accord, I'll never get on."

Many of the senators interviewed by The Washington Times said their staffs have given the exchange a test run before they have, and that they're leaning on them for help.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, released a sequence of photos Thursday that show him sitting, on his own, at a computer and trying to sign up. He said he worked past an initial error message, only to be stymied by an "internal server error" screen.

"Despite multiple attempts, I was unable to get past that point and sign up for a health plan," he said. "We've got a call into the help desk. Guess I'll just have to keep trying."

D.C. exchange personnel set up a meeting room in the Capitol's basement Wednesday to help lawmakers and staff understand their options.

The exchange was quick to note it is holding enrollment fairs for city residents, too, including a large one at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Saturday.

"One thing that sometimes gets lost in translation on this is the 112 plan choices available to members and staff are the exact same plan choices available to all eligible small businesses in the District," Mr. Sorian said.

But lawmakers and staff did get a boost when the Obama administration said they could keep a federal subsidy that pays for up to 75 percent of their premiums.

The Office of Personnel Management came to that conclusion after members of Congress feared a "brain drain" from the Hill if staff members had to take on hundred or thousands of dollars in unsubsidized health-premium costs.

Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, has been a fierce critic of this exception for Congress, since everyday Americans on the exchanges will not enjoy a generous employer-based subsidy. He also wants a legislative fix to shine a light on lawmakers who let their staff stay out of the reach of Obamacare by designating them as nonofficial.

Normally, people with employee-based health care would not enter the exchanges, but lawmakers accepted an amendment to the health care law by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, to make sure lawmakers feel what Obamacare will offer Americans in the individual market.

"I'm not thrilled at all," Sen. Dan Coats, Indiana Republican, said of enrolling. But he added, "We should have to sleep in whatever bed we make."

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