Policy

Democrat Tells Obama People Shouldn't Be Penalized For Problematic Health Insurance Website

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday called for the Obama administration to consider extending the open enrollment period for the first year of the health care law's implementation — and delaying the individual mandate tax — if the problems plaguing the HealthCare.gov website persist.

New Hampshire is one of the states that did not set up its own exchange, meaning Granite State residents are facing the full brunt of the "glitches."

"Given the existing problems with the website, I urge you to consider extending open enrollment beyond the current end date of March 31, 2014. Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll," the Democrat wrote in a Tuesday letter to President Barack Obama.

Shaheen then went further to suggest a delay in enforcement of the individual mandate tax penalty if issues persist.

"Further, in light of the difficulties individuals may be having with enrolling through healthcare.gov, I ask that you clarify how the individual responsibility penalty will be administered and enforced," she wrote. "If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage."

The administration has already delayed the employer mandate for a year but has refused to consider doing the same for individuals, arguing that it would strike at the core of the law.

Shaheen is up for re-election in 2014. She continues to enjoy strong favorability from her New Hampshire constituents, as highlighted in the latest WMUR Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that former Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients would be brought in to help manage the process of fixing the problems with the federal website that have made it extremely difficult for many users to complete the enrollment process.

"In addition to our efforts to ramp up capacity and expertise with the country's leading innovators and problem solvers, we have secured additional staff and commitments from our contractors, including CGI, the lead firm responsible for the federally facilitated marketplace technology," Sebelius wrote on an HHS blog. "They are providing and directing the additional resources needed for this project within the provisions of their existing contract."

There's been no shortage of criticism for Sebelius and HHS during the website rollout, with House Republicans particularly criticizing Sebelius for not testifying this week on the issues. She's expected to testify next week at the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The full text of the letter from Shaheen to Obama, first obtained by Politico, appears below:

The Affordable Care Act has already positively impacted the lives of millions of Americans and once fully implemented, this law has great promise. However, I am concerned about the problems that people are experiencing with the Affordable Care Act’s website, healthcare.gov. As website glitches persist, we are losing valuable time to educate and enroll people in insurance plans. I also fear that people that have tried, and failed, to enroll online may become frustrated and not return to the website to try again at a later date.

Given the existing problems with the website, I urge you to consider extending open enrollment beyond the current end date of March 31, 2014. Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll.

Further, in light of the difficulties individuals may be having with enrolling through healthcare.gov, I ask that you clarify how the individual responsibility penalty will be administered and enforced. If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage.

The difficulty that people in New Hampshire and in other states that are relying on the federally facilitated marketplaces are experiencing is incredibly frustrating and disappointing. For over three years, we have been waiting for the creation of the health insurance exchanges, which now in their fourth week of existence, are riddled with problems.

I know that the White House is working diligently to address the website issues, and I know that you share my interest in making this law work successfully. And I fully understand that the healthcare law has already had a significant impact on the lives of millions of Americans; seniors are now paying less for their prescription drugs, important preventive care services, such as some cancer screenings and immunizations, are available for free and important work is being done to improve the quality of care we receive. Americans now have the opportunity to receive tax credits to purchase quality health insurance, and starting in January, 2014, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny health coverage because of a pre-existing condition or drop coverage if someone is sick.

Ultimately, however, we must do better. As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the Administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance – extending the open enrollment period and clarification on the enforcement and administration of the individual responsibility penalty would be a great start.

I look forward to continuing to work with you to implement the law.