Health care

Time to hit pause on ObamaCare?

Awkward moment as HHS secretary toured sign-up site


The White House is under intensified pressure to hit pause on the rollout of ObamaCare as evidence mounts that officials knew well ahead of time of major problems in the new health care law and its implementation -- raising questions whether the administration went ahead, nonetheless, for political purposes. 

"One year delay of the mandate and he would have avoided a lot of this," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Fox News. 

The question remains whether President Obama might still decide to delay the requirement on individuals to buy insurance and possibly more. He's getting hammered by not just lawmakers but the mainstream media, including typically friendly publications; the new cover of Time magazine shows a cracked "ObamaCare" pill above the blaring headline: "Broken Promise" 

If the president does delay the law, Republicans would surely use the buckle to hammer Democrats going into the 2014 mid-terms. But the politics for Obama's party are bad no matter what he decides -- if Obama doesn't budge, Democrats running next year will be hit for keeping the law on life support in spite of its flaws. 

Republicans, and some Democrats, are still pushing for a sweeping delay, despite Obama's efforts to assuage their concerns. 

"This isn't the way ObamaCare is supposed to work. We would like to see it delayed and take a timeout for everybody," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told Fox News. 

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has been one of the most outspoken Democratic critics of the Affordable Care Act rollout, introduced a bill last week that would give people an extra two months to sign up for insurance next year -- and could allow an additional extension if isn't fully operational by the start of December. 

Despite earlier assurances from the administration that the troubled federal exchange website would be fixed by Nov. 30, it is now clear that the White House and Health and Human Services Department have lowered their expectations. 

They now say it will be "greatly improved" by the end of the month, but are not guaranteeing it will be running smoothly. 

This was made painfully evident for the administration this week when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, during a visit in Florida, watched the website crash as a consumer tried to log on. The awkward moment was captured on video. 

Without a fully operational site, it runs the risk of holding down enrollment numbers. About 100,000 people enrolled in October, which was far short of the administration's first-month goal. If a relatively small number of people sign up -- and worse, the mix of people tilts toward high-risk customers -- it could cause problems for insurance companies depending on a flood of young, healthy new customers. 

The deadline for people to sign up if they want to avoid a penalty remains March 31, 2014. 

But in some states, would-be customers could experience problems for weeks, if not months. 

In Oregon, whose online exchange has not signed up a single customer, officials say they're now shooting for a Dec. 16 launch. 

Obama's grassroots supporters are planning to bring the push for enrollment down to the buzzer. On a conference call on Monday, Organizing for Action Executive Director Jon Carson said the "biggest push" will come in March. 

So far, administration officials give no indication they are seriously considering a broader delay at this point. 

Sebelius this week, though, acknowledged that it was a bad move to go ahead with the launch on Oct. 1. 

"We were hoping to maximize [the amount of time people have to enroll]," she told the Associated Press. "Clearly that was a bad call." 

More evidence emerged Wednesday that some in the administration were nervous about the launch ahead of time. A Sept. 25 email chain from project manager Henry Chao openly worried about the possibility of a site failure, and the bad press that would follow. 

He said White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park conveyed "this fear the WH has about being unavailable." 

On top of the website problems, and perhaps a bigger political headache for the administration, was the fact that millions of cancellation notices were going out to those on the individual market -- despite Obama's pledge that those who like their plans can keep them. 

Obama, responding to this, announced last week that insurance companies could offer out-of-compliance plans for another year. 

But insurance companies and commissioners have warned this could throw the system out of balance, by allowing people to return to lower-premium plans -- potentially increasing rates for everybody else. 

Insurance commissioners who met with Obama on Wednesday voiced concern that this has created uncertainty in the marketplace. 

However, the insurance industry is adamantly opposed to a delay in the individual mandate. By itself, a delay in the mandate would deprive the industry of new customers in 2014, while companies would still be expected to comply with other parts of the law requiring additional coverage and benefits.