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WASHINGTON (AP) — Add simmering Democratic discontent to the problems plaguing "Obamacare," now that first-month enrollment figures are out.
The White House is rushing to come up with an unspecified fix as early as this week to counter the millions of health coverage cancellations going to consumers, at the same time it promises improvements in a federal website so balky that enrollments totaled fewer than 27,000 in 36 states combined.
The White House also is taking a more open approach to changes in the law itself. "We welcome sincere efforts," presidential press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday at the White House as Democratic impatience grew over a program likely to be at the center of next year's midterm elections for control of Congress.
After weeks of highly publicized technical woes, the administration had said in advance the enrollment numbers would fall far short of initial expectations.
They did, easily.
A paltry 26,794 people enrolled for health insurance during the first, flawed month of operations for the federal "Obamacare" website.
Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials had projected — and a small fraction of the millions who have received private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.
The administration said an additional 1 million people have been found eligible to buy coverage in the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, which covers low-income people.
Republicans were unmoved.
"Even with the administration's Enron-like accounting, fewer people have signed up for Obamacare nationwide than the 280,000 who've already lost their plan in Kentucky as a result of Obamacare mandates," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.
Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program's future. "We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in overall charge.
"Even with the issues we've had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling," she added.
Despite the expressions, the White House raced to reassure anxious Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago over Republican opposition as strong now as it was then.
Senate Democrats arranged a closed-door meeting for midday Thursday in the Capitol with White House officials, who held a similar session Wednesday with the House rank and file.
So far, five Senate Democrats are on record in support of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to make sure everyone can keep their present coverage if they want to. The bill would require insurance companies to continue offering existing policies, even if they fall short of minimum coverage requirements in the law.
The measure has little apparent chance at passage, given that it imposes a new mandate on the insurance industry that Republicans will be reluctant to accept.
At the same time, a vote would at least permit Democrats to say they have voted to repair some of the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, as many appear eager to do.
In a statement, Landrieu said Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were now supporting the legislation, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. All but Feinstein are on the ballot next year.
Across the Capitol, majority Republicans in the House set a vote for Friday on legislation to permit insurance companies to continue selling existing policies that have been ordered scrapped because they fall short of coverage standards in the law.
While House passage of the measure is assured, each Democrat will be forced to cast a vote on the future of a program that Republicans have vowed to place at the center of next year's campaign.
The promise of keeping coverage was Obama's oft-stated pledge when the legislation was under consideration, a calling card since shredded by the millions of cancellations mailed out by insurers.
Obama apologized last week for the broken promise, but aides said at the time the White House was only considering administration changes, rather than new legislation.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans said Sunday they intend to press Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the Obama administration's troubled launch of healthcare.gov, the online portal to buy insurance — even as the website suffered yet another setback.
A component of the online system that has been working relatively well experienced an outage Sunday. The federal data services hub, a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law, went down in a failure that was blamed on an outside contractor, Terremark.
"Today, Terremark had a network failure that is impacting a number of their clients, including healthcare.gov," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "Secretary Sebelius spoke with the CEO of Verizon this afternoon to discuss the situation and they committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible."
Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, of which Terremark is a part, said: "Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue. It will fixed as quickly as possible."
The Obama administration will face intense pressure this week to be more forthcoming about how many people have actually succeeded in enrolling for coverage in the new insurance markets. Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner is to testify during a House hearing Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sebelius before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The officials will also be grilled on how such crippling technical problems could have gone undetected prior to the website's Oct. 1 launch.
"The incompetence in building this website is staggering," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the second ranking Republican on the panel and an opponent of the law.
Democrats said the new system needed time to get up and running, and it could be fixed to provide millions of people with affordable insurance. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said the system was "working in Kentucky," a state that has dealt with "some of the worst health statistics in the country. ... The only way we're going to get ourselves out of the ditch is some transformational tool," like the new health insurance system.
Blackburn said she wanted to know much has been spent on the website, how much more it will cost to fix the problems, when everything will be ready and what people should expect to see on the site. Blackburn and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., raised questions of whether the website could guard the privacy of applicants.
"The way the system is designed it is not secure," said Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The administration sought to reassure applicants about their personal information. HHS' Peters said when consumers fill out their applications, "they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."
The botched rollout has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a delay of penalties for those remaining uninsured. The Obama administration has said it's willing to extend the grace period until Mar. 31, the end of open enrollment. That's an extra six weeks. The insurance industry says going beyond that risks undermining the new system by giving younger, healthier people a pass.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is seeking a yearlong delay to the penalty for noncompliance, said his approach would "still induce people to get involved, but it will also give us the time to transition in. And I think we need that transition period to work out the things." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has urged the Obama administration to postpone the March 31 deadline, said she was concerned applicants would not have a full six months to enroll.
The administration was under no legal requirement to launch the website Oct. 1. Sebelius, who designated her department's Medicare agency to implement the health care law, had the discretion to set open enrollment dates. Officials could have postponed open enrollment by a month, or they could have phased in access to the website.
But all through last summer and into early fall, the administration insisted it was ready to go live in all 50 states on Oct. 1.
The online insurance markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who do not have access to a health plan through their jobs. The health care law offers middle-class people a choice of private insurance plans, made more affordable through new tax credits. Low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that safety net program.
An HHS memo prepared for Sebelius in September estimated that nearly 500,000 people would enroll for coverage in the marketplaces during October, their first month of operation. The actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that. The administration has said 700,000 people have completed applications.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president had been poorly served by Sebelius "in the implementation of his own signature legislature. So if somebody doesn't leave and if there isn't a real restructuring, not just a 60-day somebody come in and try to fix it, then he's missing the point of management 101, which is these people are to serve him well, and they haven't."
Blackburn spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Beshear appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rogers was on to CNN's "State of the Union," Manchin was interviewed on ABC's "This Week," and Shaheen and Issa made their comments on CBS "Face the Nation."
WASHINGTON (AP) — "Obamacare" escaped unharmed from the government shutdown Republicans hoped would stop it, but just as quickly they have opened a new line of attack — one handed to them by the administration itself.
While Congress was arguing, President Barack Obama's plan to expand coverage for the uninsured suffered a self-inflicted wound. A computer system seemingly designed by gremlins gummed up the first open enrollment season. After nearly three weeks, it's still not fixed.
Republicans hope to ride that and other defects they see in the law into the 2014 congressional elections. Four Democratic senators are facing re-election for the first time since they voted for the Affordable Care Act, and their defeat is critical to GOP aspirations for a Senate majority.
Democrats say that's just more wishful thinking, if not obsession.
Although Obama's law remains divisive, only 29 percent of the public favors its complete repeal, according to a recent Gallup poll. The business-oriented wing of the Republican party wants to move on to other issues. Americans may be growing weary of the health care fight.
"This is the law of the land at this point," said Michael Weaver, a self-employed photographer from rural southern Illinois who's been uninsured for about a year. "We need to stop the arguing and move forward to make it work."
It took him about a week and half, but Weaver kept going back to the healthcare.gov website until he was able to open an account and apply for a tax credit that will reduce his premiums. He's not completely finished because he hasn't selected an insurance plan, but he's been able to browse options.
It beats providing page after page of personal health information to insurance companies, Weaver said.
Under the new law, insurers have to accept people with health problems. Weaver is in his mid-50s, with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but otherwise in good health. He says those common conditions made it hard for him to get coverage before.
Although Weaver seems to have gotten past the major website obstacles, he's still finding shortcomings. There's no place to type in his medications and find out what plans cover them. "I wish there was more detail, so you could really figure it out," he said.
Such a nuanced critique appears to be lost on congressional Republicans.
"#TrainWreck: Skyrocketing Prices, Blank Screens, & Error Messages," screamed the headline on a press release Friday from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A House hearing on the "botched Obamacare rollout" is scheduled for this coming week. GOP lawmakers want Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign.
Administration officials, in their most detailed accounting yet of the early rollout, said Saturday that about 476,000 health insurance applications have been filed through federal and state exchanges. But the officials continue to refuse say how many people have enrolled in the insurance markets.
Without enrollment figures, it's unclear whether the program is on track to reach the 7 million people projecting by the Congressional Budget Office to gain coverage during the six-month sign-up period.
The president was expected to address the problems on Monday during a health care event at the White House. The administration has yet to fully explain what has gone wrong with the online signup system.
"To our Democratic friends: You own 'Obamacare' and it's going to be the political gift that keeps on giving," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"Irresponsible obsession," scoffs Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees much of the health law.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she doesn't see how going after the health law rollout will help Republicans by the time of next year's election.
"Americans are technology optimists," said Lake. "You tell them the website has problems today, and they'll assume it will be better tomorrow. I mean, we're Americans. We can fix a website."
There may be a method to the GOP's single-mindedness.
Republicans are intent on making the health law an uncomfortable anchor around the neck of four Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-leaning states, weighing them down as they try to unseat them. Republicans need to gain six seats to seize the majority in the Senate, and any formula for control includes flipping the four seats.
Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina will be facing voters for the first time since they were among the 60 Democrats who voted for the health law in 2009.
More than a year before the election, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is airing an ad that criticizes Pryor for his vote, telling Arkansans that Pryor "cast the deciding vote to make you live under Obamacare." The commercial's final image shows Pryor with Obama, who took a drubbing in Arkansas last year.
"The bottom line is these candidates will have to answer for why they voted for this bill," said Rob Engstrom, senior vice president and national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
If the website gets fixed, other problems may emerge. Republicans can still try linking 'Obamacare' to rising premiums, anemic job growth and broader economic worries.
Will the strategy work?
The chamber spent millions on ads in 2012 criticizing Senate incumbents such as Jon Tester of Montana and Bill Nelson of Florida for their health care votes, yet many of those candidates overcame the criticism and won re-election.
The economy, not health care, remains the top concern of voters. By putting opposition to the health care law ahead of all other priorities, economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin says tea-party conservatives may have overdone it.
"Obamacare was an effective campaign weapon," said Holtz-Eakin, and adviser to Republicans. "The question is, have they damaged it beyond its political viability?"
The online health insurance exchanges are now open in both Missouri and Illinois. The online marketplace is a key component of the federal health care law.
Illinois officials have set up their own marketplace at GetCoveredIllinois.gov.
Missouri voters chose to bar their government from setting up its own marketplace. So the federal government is running the exchange for Missouri residents at Healthcare.gov.
Consumers have until December 15th to sign up if they want coverage to start on January 1, but enrollment is open until March 31.
On October 1st, the federally mandated health insurance exchanges open enrollment. And that includes Missouri.
State voters passed a law last year that effectively barred the governor from setting up an insurance exchange, but that doesn't mean there isn't one.
The federal government will operate Missouri’s online marketplace, which is currently being set up. The federal website, healthcare.gov says it will be ready in time for enrollment to begin.
Under the new healthcare law, those who don't have insurance through their employers, schools, parents, a private policy or a public plan like Medicaid or Medicare will face fines next year. And many of them are expected to be young adults. The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that 25% of young adults in the Missouri are currently uninsured.
Illinois did set up a health insurance exchange.
Residents in both Missouri and Illinois can get more information about affordable coverage at healthcare.gov.