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Democrats call for changes to health care law

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, at 11:16 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at 6:29 a.m.

— Republicans have always been harsh critics of Obamacare.

Now President Obama’s signature health care law is taking heat from Democrats, too. More than three weeks after the problem-plagued rollout of the federal marketplace where consumers can sign up for health insurance, support for major provisions of the Affordable Care Act is weakening among some Democrats, who want to see someone fired over the botched debut.

“I absolutely believe that somebody should be held accountable,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

As lawmakers prepare to grill federal contractors Thursday about the performance of the Healthcare.gov website at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, the marketplace has grown from a public relations black eye into the most immediate threat to the law’s early success.

Wednesday was the first full day the House of Representatives had met since controversy erupted over the insurance marketplaces, and the political fallout was everywhere. Republicans paraded one by one onto the House floor offering one-minute speeches blasting the law. House Democrats met and expressed frustration.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire broke with fellow Democrats and called on Obama to extend the open enrollment period beyond March 31, 2014. In a letter to Obama, Shaheen said the website problems were “incredibly frustrating and disappointing.”

Even the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, embraced Shaheen’s idea, telling MSNBC, “There should absolutely be an openness to extending the open enrollment period. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shot down Shaheen’s proposal at her weekly news conference.

“I don’t support that,” Pelosi said, adding that the state-run California insurance marketplace is working just fine. “So I think we should try to fix what we have, move forward with the deadline we have, respectful of what her experience may be and her suggestion, but not (be) supportive of it.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that it was too soon to extend the enrollment period, saying the six-month signup period was still in the early stages. He said that consumer struggles with the website were “extremely unfortunate” and that the Obama administration takes responsibility for the problems.

But he said those problems “pale in comparison” to the uncertainty facing sick people who would be unable to get health insurance without the law.

While support for Obamacare among Democrats has never been unanimous, Wednesday’s developments show a growing unease among the president’s supporters with the law’s implementation.

Since the launch of the 2014 open enrollment period on Oct. 1, the federal marketplace, which serves 36 states, has frustrated millions of consumers, drawn the ire of Obama and triggered calls for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to be fired.

The House hearing Thursday offers the first chance to do so. It will feature representatives from four software contractors, including CGI Federal, the company that designed and developed the federal marketplace. Lawmakers have plenty of questions for the contractors, who worked more than three years on the marketplace technology only to see problems arise almost immediately.

“As a former computer programmer, I have a lot of serious questions about how the program could be such a dismal failure,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “This is a national embarrassment.”

Many now question whether contractors were pressured by HHS officials to move ahead with the Oct. 1 launch, even though the system had not performed well and government reports showed that site testing was months behind schedule.

“There’s no question that testing was done and testing should have been more thorough, and therefore we would have been more prepared for this – this kind of challenge,” Carney said.

At first, the Obama administration blamed the website’s delays, malfunctions and crashes on an unexpected deluge of users. Recent reports suggest the problems are much deeper and could take months to resolve. Experts now say much of the system’s software coding must be rewritten and that interfaces with various government databases aren’t working properly.

Carney reiterated that the administration was working “24-7” to fix the computer problems. Beginning Thursday, he said the administration would begin holding daily briefings for reporters to update them on the progress of the web fixes.

Many of the website’s problems are par for the course for a project this large and complex, said Jim Johnson, president of The Standish Group, a research company that studies information technology project failures.

“It’s not shocking that this didn’t work,” Johnson said. “To me it would be very shocking if it did work.”

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