The Obama administration is racing against the clock to smooth out problems with a federal Web portal, healthcare.gov, before the glitches permanently damage the Affordable Care Act and harden Republican calls to put off or scrap the individual mandate, a provision that requires Americans to hold some form of health care coverage or face penalties next year.
But Obamacare’s chief repairman says it will take until the end of November to get the website working for the “vast majority” of users, meaning the law’s Democratic cheerleaders will have to weigh concerns about the reforms against their allegiance to their party’s chief at the White House.
As if to underline the problems Sunday afternoon, the healthcare.gov site was down Sunday afternoon because site-hosting company Terremark had an Internet outage.
The issue, which festered on Capitol Hill last week, burst into view Friday when 10 Senate Democrats asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to extend Obamacare’s open-enrollment period past March 31, citing bugs within the website.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is leading the charge to give people more time to use websites, known as exchanges, where Americans without health insurance can shop for private insurance.
The letter is signed by four Democrats who face re-election next year in traditionally red states — Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Mark Udall of Colorado, Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, and Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico also signed the letter.
“As long as these substantial technology glitches persist, we are losing valuable time to educate and enroll people in insurance plans, they wrote. “Our constituents are frustrated, and we fear that the longer the website is not functional, opportunities for people to log on, learn about their insurance choices, and enroll will be lost.”
Republicans reacted swiftly.
“Kay Hagan’s sudden change of position to delay the individual mandate could very well go down as the biggest and most politically motivated flip-flop in North Carolina’s history,” North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope said Friday.
The senators’ letter is the clearest indication to date that Democrats are feeling real pressure to deal with the troubled debut of markets — particularly the federally run website that handles requests from 36 states — and the law’s penalties for failing to gain coverage.
The individual mandate is supposed to compel younger, healthier Americans who can afford insurance to acquire it, balancing out risk pools and keeping premiums in check when older, sicker consumers seek coverage because the law says they no longer can be turned down.
But Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, is calling for a one-year delay of the individual mandate, to 2015, when the fee for flouting the mandate is scheduled to be a more punitive $325 than the $95 floor in 2014.
“It will still induce people to get involved, but it will also give us the time to transition in,” he told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “I think we need that transition period to work out the things. And we’ve identified a lot of problems, a lot of glitches.”
Jeffrey Zients, a former White House budget director hired to turn around the glitchy website, said Friday that a new general contractor will help the Obama administration “punch out” those problems so that the vast majority of users can enroll by the end of November.
On a conference call hosted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he said the administration tapped Quality Software Services Inc. — an existing Obamacare contractor — to oversee the project as a general contractor.
“But let me be clear,” he said. “Healthcare.gov is fixable.”
In the meantime, the problems are sure to fuel indignation among Republicans who pushed for a delay of the individual mandate or other provisions of the law but were rebuffed by Democrats, which led to the government shutdown that rocked Washington.
Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the Democrats‘ request is “far, far different” because they want to tweak a timeline instead of gutting the law.