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More Democrats push for delay in Obamacare mandate

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Democrats on Wednesday joined the bipartisan calls for President Obama to reconsider his health care law's individual mandate, and the administration shifted its own emphasis from a Feb. 15 sign-up deadline to an end-of-March deadline for when Americans must prove they have coverage under the individual mandate.

Still to be seen is whether that six-week shift in emphasis will be enough to assuage concerns that computer problems have made exchange enrollment unworkable.

Several Democratic senators this week called for Mr. Obama to extend the enrollment period and to consider delaying the tax penalties that will be levied against Americans who don't have coverage.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, led the call Tuesday, and on Wednesday two of her colleagues, Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, joined her.

"Given the recent website issues, I also support extending open enrollment season," said Mr. Begich. "I want to work with the administration to ensure that individuals are not unfairly penalized if technical issues with the website continue."

Mr. Pryor said he supports Ms. Shaheen's "common-sense idea to extend the date for open enrollment."

"We all want to see the law work, and I hope the administration will take a hard look at this reasonable suggestion," he said.

The Obamacare Web portals were supposed to let people without employer-based coverage buy private insurance, often with the help of income-based government subsidies, during an open-enrollment period from Oct. 1 to March 31.

Several state-run markets have reported early success, but the federal site serving three dozen states has suffered from a variety of breakdowns.

The problems have some wondering whether the Obama administration needs to exempt people from eventual penalties if they cannot log on and get insurance. The penalties apply if Americans go without insurance for three straight months.

The administration had been emphasizing a Feb. 15 deadline for Americans to sign up for the exchanges so they could prove they were covered by March 31.

But officials said Wednesday that the March 31 deadline is the key.

"The individual mandate timing has not changed. The deadline for signing up for insurance is March 31. It was true this morning. It is true tonight," said Jessica Santillo, a White House spokeswoman.

The question of a delay has dominated Congress in the week since lawmakers reached a debt and spending deal that reopened the government. That deal refocused attention to Obamacare.

Republicans say they want to know how Americans are supposed to buy a product they might not want, on a website that might not let them acquire it.

"At the heart of this, really, is a law almost too complex for technology to handle," said Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican and chairman of a health panel within the Ways and Means Committee.

House Democrats received a briefing Wednesday morning about progress in fixing the website from a top Health and Human Services official. Afterward, Democratic leaders said they didn't talk about delaying the individual mandate and that it was too early to make that judgment.

"I think that we're certainly not at that bridge, and I don't know that we'll get there," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said. "Right now, I think the president is doing everything in his power to bring in all the expertise he needs to resolve this problem. If we can send a man to the moon, we ought to be able to resolve this. We will be able to resolve this."

Nevertheless, one Democratic lawmaker did call for a delay Wednesday — for a wealthy ski-resort county in his Colorado district suffering from severe sticker shock. Rep. Jared Polis said in article published on Solutions, a Colorado health policy website, that "we will be encouraging a waiver" of the sign-up penalty for Summit County, which hasn't had a single enrollment yet for the state's Obamacare exchange.

"For the vast majority, it's too high a price to pay," Mr. Polis said of Summit County, which is home to mountain resort towns and where plans are up to three times costlier than in other areas of the state.

Several Democrats did say the president should hold his aides accountable for the hiccups, including Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He also lambasted Republican critics for hindering efforts to educate uninsured Americans about the health care reforms.

"We want the process to improve, but we're not interested in trying to torpedo the process," he said.

Valerie Richardson contributed to this report from Denver.

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