- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2013

President Obama’s health care law continues to drop in the polls and faces ever more pressure on Capitol Hill, where Republicans on Wednesday said they doubted the data hub at the center of Obamacare either will be ready on time or be secure enough to protect Americans’ privacy.

The Health and Human Services Department assured lawmakers that it finished testing the hub Friday, meeting a key benchmark in making sure the exchanges, or state-based insurance markets, are ready to open Oct. 1.

Questions over the hub are just the latest challenge to the law, which faces operational hurdles and political pressure from Republicans who are trying to repeal the law through legislation or to halt all of its funding, which also would kill it.

A CNN poll released Wednesday showed that support for the Affordable Care Act has dropped to 39 percent — down from 51 percent in January.

Buoyed by numbers like that, some conservatives in Congress have demanded that the next spending bill includes language to defund the health care law altogether.

The conservatives led a rebellion this week that forced House Republican leaders to scratch a vote on a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of this month. The bill would have given conservatives a symbolic vote on defunding the health care law and then gone to the Senate, which would have ignored that vote and passed the bill with Obamacare funding intact.

Rank-and-file Republicans said they wanted a stiffer stance from their leaders in this fight.

“We can achieve victory for American families without a government shutdown, but I will not surrender in the fight to delay Obamacare for all Americans,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “President Obama has already agreed to delay Obamacare for big businesses and insurance companies, and it’s only fair that we extend the same relief to American families.”

Indeed, a report from the Congressional Research Service says Congress has amended or changed the Affordable Care Act 14 times, and Mr. Obama has ordered five delays, including the employer mandate to which Mr. Scalise referred.

What have not been halted are the parts that will require individuals to have coverage as of January, nor has Mr. Obama halted the exchanges, which will allow those who don’t get coverage from their employers to buy policies from a market — often with the aid of taxpayer subsidies.

A key part of those exchanges is determining eligibility, which is where the data hub comes into play.

Agencies that must swap information about Americans’ income, immigration status and access to adequate health care coverage include the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the federal Medicare agency.

Republicans said they are worried.

“I have grave concerns from a cybersecurity standpoint,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of a cybersecurity subcommittee.

Kay Daly, assistant inspector general for HHS, testified to the panel that her office has not followed up with the agency since an early August audit suggested that officials were falling behind “tight deadlines” in setting up and testing the hub.

Other witnesses said the inspector general needs to be more diligent in preventing the release of personal data.

But Rep. Yvette D. Clarke of New York, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said ominous claims about the hub are overblown.

“The data services hub is not a database,” she said. “It will not function as a database. It will not contain health care records.”

In a sign of more political pressure, the House is poised to vote this week on a bill that requires those seeking government subsidies to prove their income — a move the Republican majority says will crack down on fraud but which the White House denounced as an unnecessary delay tactic.

Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, filed the bill in response to midsummer reports that the Obama administration would rely on the honor system when it doled out sliding-scale subsidies to consumers on the exchanges.

But Senate Democrats are unlikely to take up that legislation, and Mr. Obama has pledged to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. His administration says it has an “effective and efficient” verification plan in place.

The Obamacare hiccups are touching members of Congress themselves.

Lawmakers and staffers in their personal offices will be kicked off their current government health care plans and will have to buy plans from the exchanges — though they can keep their government subsidies to pay for the premiums.

But the House’s chief administrative officer sent an email Wednesday saying that because all the details are still being worked out, congressional employees may not be able to sign up when the exchanges open Oct. 1.

“Members and staff are advised that although state and federal healthcare exchanges created under the ACA will open for enrollment on October 1st, it will not be possible to confirm plan options, costs, benefits, or which House staff will be affected until OPM issues final regulations, which could very well be after the exchanges have already opened,” the administrative office said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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