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White House won’t rule out delay of Obamacare; buyers wait for website fix

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Website glitches could end up accomplishing what congressional Republicans couldn't.

The Obama administration remains committed to getting Obamacare up and running on time, but the White House this week left itself enough wiggle room if it decides it must delay the mandate that everyone have health insurance — a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act — if consumers continue to have problems signing up.

A growing number of lawmakers, including at least one key Democrat, are pushing the administration to do just that, asking that President Obama give Americans more time to sign up before the individual mandate — and its fines — kick in.

"Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday. "If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage."

The White House hasn't said what it would do if the well-documented problems persist with healthcare.gov, the online portal where many Americans are supposed to sign up to buy insurance in the health care exchanges.

Press secretary Jay Carney refused to rule out a delay in the mandate and pointedly noted that the law already excuses some people from the mandate and the penalties under certain conditions.

"The law is clear that if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, then you will not be asked to pay a penalty because you haven't purchased affordable health insurance," he said Monday, though he added that administration officials are intent on trying to make sure people can get coverage.

If problems continue for the next few weeks or months, some analysts say, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has the authority to issue a "blanket exemption" that would waive fines and penalties for those who don't have health insurance by March 31.

Such an exemption would be a serious blow to the administration's efforts to implement the law, but could end up being a last resort if technical problems aren't corrected soon.

"I really don't think it's going to happen. I don't think the website will still be down in February. But if it is, the secretary so far has shown a great deal of flexibility in creating 'hardship exceptions.' If people can't get health insurance, they can't get health insurance," said Timothy Jost, a professor and researcher of health care law at Washington and Lee University. "I think it would be within her discretion to issue some kind of blanket exception. I think that would be possible."

Ms. Sebelius, in an interview Tuesday evening on CNN, said the decision was made to launch the website despite concerns about its readiness.

"There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families. " she said, "So waiting is not really an option."

Delaying the individual mandate — which requires all Americans to buy health insurance and was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court last year — long has been a goal of Obamacare critics, most notably congressional Republicans who deeply oppose the law. It was one of the demands House Republicans tried to make Mr. Obama accept as their price for ending the recent government shutdown — without success.

The mandate calls on all Americans to have insurance by Jan. 1. Fines would be issued to those who have not acquired insurance after three straight months, or by March 31.

To complete all necessary paperwork in time to meet the mandate, analysts say, applicants would need to seek insurance by Feb. 15.

The White House is sticking with its original timetable even though the healthcare.gov website, designed as the central hub for all things Obamacare and the portal through which uninsured Americans can apply for coverage, remains riddled with glitches.

The administration, and the president himself, acknowledge that the site has serious problems.

On Tuesday, officials reiterated that federal workers and private contractors are working around the clock to repair the website. The Health and Human Services Department has tapped Jeffrey Zients, former White House budget director, to oversee the repairs.

Mr. Carney said there is time for the fixes to be made and for Americans to sign up before the deadlines.

"Improvements are being made and improvements were necessary and remain necessary. The important thing is, in the six-month open-enrollment period, there is going to be time for all those millions of Americans to look at the options available to them," the spokesman told reporters.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, is pushing legislation to delay the mandate until the website is fully functional and consumers are able to reliably access it and seek insurance.

Other Republicans are echoing that call.

"The health care law's disastrous rollout has created not only a competence question for the administration, but it has again raised the issue of fairness," said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health. "Forcing Americans to purchase a product that is too expensive and not accessible is unacceptable, unrealistic and unfair."

Others said it's too early to sound the alarm.

"For people who must rely on the federal exchange, there are still 160 days before the end of open enrollment, which seems to be more than enough time to work out the kinks in the online system and get people enrolled before they'd have to pay the individual responsibility fee," said Holly Lynch, a health care policy and bioethics specialist at Harvard Law School.

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