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White House sidesteps on “Obamacare” change

Posted on Friday, November 8, 2013 at 11:08 am

WASHINGTON (AP) – Under growing pressure, the administration refused
repeatedly to state a position Tuesday on legislation formalizing President
Barack Obama’s oft-stated promise that people who like their existing
coverage should be allowed to keep it under the new health care law.

Senate Democrats spoke dismissively of the proposals, signaling they have no
intention of permitting a vote on the issue that marks the latest challenge
confronting supporters of “Obamacare.”

An earlier controversy appeared to be ebbing on a law that has generated
more than its share of them. Even so, one strong supporter of the health
care law, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R. I., good-naturedly told an
administration official, “Good luck getting through this mess.”

Whitehouse spoke to Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the agency deeply involved
in implementing the law. She had assured lawmakers that initial flaws with
the government’s website were systematically yielding to around-the-clock
repair effort.

“Users can now successfully create an account and continue through the full
application and enrollment process,” said Tavenner, head of the Centers for
Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We are now able to process nearly 17,000
registrants per hour, or 5 per second, with almost no errors.”

She encouraged consumers to log onto the site and check it out, and said the
administration had estimated that enrollments will total 800,000 by the end
of November.

At the same time, she repeatedly refused to tell inquiring Republicans how
many enrollments have taken place to date, saying that information would be
made available at mid-month.

Across the Capitol, that reluctance drew a subpoena from Rep. Dave Camp, the
Michigan Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. He said
the material was “critical government information” that the administration
has refused to provide voluntarily, and demanded that it be turned over by

In response, a CMS spokeswoman, Tasha Bradley, said: “We have received the
subpoena and are committed to working with the committee to accommodate
their interest in this issue.” She did not explicitly pledge compliance.

In her testimony, Tavenner also sought to reassure lawmakers who expressed
concerns about cybersecurity at .

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., cited the case of a Columbia, S.C. attorney, who
used the website to look for coverage, only to learn later that some of his
personal information had been made available to a different browser, a man
in North Carolina.

“Has this happened before?” Scott asked. “Can you guarantee that Social
Security numbers … are secure? Will you shut down the website, as my
friends from the left have already suggested, until security issues are

Tavenner offered reassurances, and said officials from her agency were
attempting to get in touch with the man whose information had been

Scott said what the “consumer sees is not what’s going wrong, it’s that
their confidence is going down.”

The controversy over the ability of consumers to keep their existing plans
flared last week, when insurance companies mailed out millions of
cancellation notices, often citing the new health care law as the reason.

House Republicans intend to vote as early as next week on legislation that
permits insurers to reinstate the canceled plans, which fall short of the
coverage requirement under the health care law. One Democrat, Sen. Mary
Landrieu of Louisiana, has proposed requiring insurers to do so.

But the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Democrats
had voted unanimously against similar proposals in the past and were having
“foxhole conversions.”

“I think what will be really interesting to see in the Senate is the number
of Democrats in very red states who are up in ’14 and what they start
demanding … in terms of adjustments to this law,” he said.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney refused repeatedly to state a
position on the proposals, saying he hadn’t “reviewed or seen an examination
internally” on any of them.

Shifting the focus away from what Obama has said repeatedly, the spokesman
said, “The world back to which many critics want us to go, is a world in
which insurers have that power to say that, you know, your relative, who has
a pre-existing condition either has no chance of getting coverage or is
going to be charged so much that he or she can’t afford it.”

In words Republican critics cite frequently, Obama pledged in mid-2009: “If
you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period” and “If
you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care
plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”

In recent days, Obama and top aides have sought to amend or clarify the
pledge, a tacit acknowledgement that it hasn’t been kept.

Like Carney, Tavenner sidestepped questions on the subject, telling Sen.
Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other committee members she hadn’t read the
legislation in question.

A few hours later, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., showed no enthusiasm
for permitting a vote on the measure introduced by Landrieu, who is seeking
a new term in what is potentially a difficult race in a swing state. “We’ll
have to see,” he said, noting that hundreds of bills are introduced in the
Senate each week.

Tavenner took her seat in the witness chair in a different atmosphere from a
week ago, when she testified before a House panel and apologized to the
public for the poor performance of the website.

This time, Alexander and other Republicans said almost in passing they
assume the website woes will be repaired, and focused on areas of cost,
cancellation and security concerns.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., displayed a sign behind his seat saying, ‘Tip of
the iceberg’ that showed a pale blue iceberg floating in water. Above the
waterline, the iceberg was labeled ‘website failures.’ Below were examples
of reported health care law problems including canceled coverage, higher
co-pay and deductibles, premium increases and fraud and identify theft.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said as of Monday, only three
people in her state had been able to enroll, and added there were concerns
that they had done so on the basis of incorrect information.

Alexander said “Obamacare” had resulted in thousands losing coverage through
a state program in Tennessee.

Committee Democrats were less pointed, although Sen. Barbara Mikulski of
Maryland cited consumer confusion.

“I think it’s very confusing about where you go,” she said. “I can tell you,
people really don’t know, they really, really don’t know.”

There were also expressions of urgency from Democrats.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., asked if the website in use in his state could
be streamlined.

When Tavenner said she would look into the issue and get back to him, he
said: “Can we do that today?”