The Issue: Healthcare debate: Second verse, same as the first

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  Nov. 3, 2013 at 3:30 AM
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It was deja vu all over again when hearings before two House panels over the flubbed rollout of expanded to a denunciation of the Affordable Care Act in general.

Battle lines were drawn as Republicans voiced concerns over privacy issues, the inefficacy of -- the federal portal to compare, price and enroll in healthcare coverage plans -- and the news that insurance carriers were sending cancellation notices to some policyholders despite President Obama's pledge if consumers liked their coverage could keep it.

Democrats said it was same-old, same-old from Republicans bent on defunding the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, after it had been signed into law and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court under the guise of anger over the botched launch of Oct. 1.

For two days last week, two administration officials spoke before two House committees about the website specifically and the act generally. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius answered questions before the Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, the day after Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, appeared before the House Ways and Means panel.

Both offered mea culpas and pledges to get the site working by the end of November. Both said they were responsible.

Addressing the American people from her witness seat, Sebelius said, "You deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you to fixing these problems and am committed to earning your confidence back."

"We know that consumers are eager to purchase this coverage," Tavenner said Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee. "I want to apologize to you that the website hasn't worked as well as it should ... and I want to assure you that can and will be fixed."

President Obama also claimed responsibility.

Speaking in Boston, Obama said he took "full responsibility for making sure" the website is fixed as soon as possible while insisting Americans are already better off under the ACA because it "requires insurance companies to abide by some of the strongest consumer protections this country has ever known -- a true patients' bill of rights."

During the hearings, Republican after Republican cited constituent correspondence about how policies were canceled and comparative coverage cost more than what they had.

"I've got letters from constituents all over my district who have gotten letters from their insurers who say because of Obamacare, they're no longer going to be in the individual market, or at least with that plan in the individual market," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. "And the result is this one person ... said, 'I was paying $600 a month for a $3,000 deductible. Now it costs me $800 a month for a $5,000 deductible.'"

Democrats weren't silent, either.

"I think it's important to note that in my home state of California and other states as well, the new exchange marketplace, we call it Covered California, is working," Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said during the same hearing. "And rates -- constituents are finding that rates are as much as 29 percent less than those that they found on the marketplace last year."

Strangely, no one from either party offered comments contrary to their positions.

The sudden lack of coverage -- and whether the Obama administration misled the public -- stems from a part of the law that allowed insurance carriers to be grandfathered in and not have to comply with ACA requirements -- provided the policies in place at the time did not change in a manner that was detrimental to the policyholder.

Responding to rapid-fire questioning by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Sebelius said "insurance companies cancel individual polices year in and year out. They're a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans; they are not an employer plan. Your constituents will have lots of options."

"It's what they wanted," Blackburn said of the canceled policies, "and I want to remind you, some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup and not a crystal stem.

"You're taking away their choice."

Throughout Wednesday's committee hearing, Sebelius repeatedly said she was responsible for what Blackburn called a "debacle," and refused to serve up anyone but herself as meat. Not the contractors who testified the previous week, not Tavenner, not Obama.

Responding to questioning by Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., about whether the president would be ultimately responsible, similarly to a company's chief executive officer, Sebelius said: "He's the president of the United States. I have given him regular reports. ... I am responsible for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. That's what he asked me to do. That's what I'll continue to do."

After Harper said the president "ultimately is responsible," Sebelius said, "Yes, he is the president. He is responsible for government programs."

Despite rallying to the administration's defense during the committee hearings, Democrats are showing signs of antsiness over the less-than-stellar sign-up launch. Even as they defended Obama's signature healthcare policy, they also sought answers.

House Ways and Means Committee member Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., noted while Tavenner apologized for the website's problems, she said the administrator had to do right by the American people trying to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"You also have to acknowledge that, that initial experience has done some damage to Americans' confidence in the website, in the marketplace and even potentially the options they would have available to get health [insurance] coverage. ... So, you know, going forward, there can be no more excuses," Schwartz said. "And we need to hear from you there is a path forward and you can be as specific and explicit as you possibly can be with us and with the public to help regain our confidence and the public's confidence in the ability of the administration and the subcontractors and contractors to get this right."

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, last week said he'd back Republican legislation that would delay the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate to have insurance.

"I have been working in a bipartisan manner with Sen. Johnny Isakson [R-Ga.] and trying to put a coalition together of bipartisan senators, which basically says the penalty, the fine of $95, will not be into effect until January 2015. At that time, the fine will be $325," Manchin said on ABC's "This Week" last Sunday.

"It will still induce people to get involved, but also give us a time to transition in," Manchin said. "And I think we need that transition period to work out the things, and we identified a lot of problems, a lot of glitches."

"But we have to work together."

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