Congressional Republicans will introduce legislation in the House and Senate Monday calling for a lengthy delay in the implementation of the individual mandate, in an indication that the fallout from the dysfunctional rollout of the Healthcare.gov website continues to widen.
The House version of the legislation will be introduced by Republican Rep. Trey Radal of Florida. The Senate version of the healthcare law is being sponsored by another Florida Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio.
As problems with the website continued to mount, Rubio told Fox News last week: "How can you punish people for not buying something that's impossible to buy, because of the inability of this website to function because of government incompetence?"
Rubio’s bill seeks to delay the advent of the mandate until six months after the Government Accountability Office has certified that the site is functioning properly.
On Thursday, the administration announced that anyone who purchases insurance by March 31 won’t be subject to the Affordable Care Act’s penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. Initially, it was expected those policies would have to be purchased by Feb. 15 to comply with the mandate’s end-of-March deadline.
That move gives consumers an extra six weeks to purchase insurance from the exchange before the mandate penalty – which the Supreme Court has ruled is actually a tax – would kick in.
The White House insisted the extension had nothing to do with the website snafus, which include computer-error messages, lengthy delays, and transmission of inaccurate information sent to insurance companies. The Spanish-language version of the website, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, has experienced serious problems as well.
The question now is whether the administration can fix the site before a majority in Congress demands a further, major delay in implementation.
On Friday, 10 Senate Democrats signed a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stating that they feel "discouraged and frustrated" by the chaotic web site rollout. Their letter requests an extension of the open-enrollment period currently scheduled to end March 31.
The Democratic senators who are distancing themselves from immediate implementation of the mandate tend to hail from red states where Obamacare is unpopular. Several of them are up for election in 2014.
The senators calling for a delay are: Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the author of the letter; Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Sen. Mark Prior, D-Ark.; Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The letter does not specify how long a delay the senators are requesting. Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is supporting separate legislation that specifies a one-year delay in penalties associated with the mandate.
That many Democratic senators are calling for a delay in Obamacare so soon after a GOP request for a delay was stonewalled by Democrats during the shutdown, has not escaped Republicans’ notice.
Brad Dayspring, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote in the Washington Post: "Every Senate Democrat voted against delay three weeks ago, causing the government to shut down. Vulnerable Democrats already know that their vote was a mistake, [they're] changing their tune, and now voting to delay Obamacare is an exercise in saving their own backsides.”
Some Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, are saying the best strategy for the GOP would be to allow the Affordable Care Act to take full effect as soon as possible. Once that happens, they say, voters will realize just how ill-advised it was to try to manage one-sixth of the American economy by ramming a 2,700-page bill through Congress without a single Republican vote.
"Enactment of a delay has a risk with it," said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who served as press secretary for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid, in an interview with Newsmax on Thursday. "A delay could take Obamacare and the damages it carries off the table in 2014 and deny Republicans their most compelling issue."
As conservative author and direct-marketing trailblazer Richard Viguerie recently told Newsmax: "The Democrats realize now that what looked like a big victory a week or so ago [ending the shutdown] may turn into ashes in their mouth."
On Thursday, the vendors who created the website said they received a last-minute request from the administration to deactivate a site function that would have allowed consumers to browse the available policy offerings, including rates and coverage, before submitting their personal data and income information to make a purchase.
The administration was apparently concerned that if users saw how expensive unsubsidized Obamacare policies are, that the healthy young people whose premiums are so essential to making the new system financially viable would forego cove rage. By forcing consumer to first complete an application, the government would in theory be able to calculate their income information and show them a lower bottom line after accounting for premium subsidies. But the data "bottleneck" rendered the enrollment system all but useless.
Analysts have estimated the administration will need to persuade 2.7 million healthy young people to opt into the system and start paying premiums in order to pay for the expansion of healthcare coverage.
Chris Jacobs, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told Newsmax the website problems are especially costly among this tech-savvy, younger demographic.
"Young people aren't going to spend days and weeks waiting to sign up on a website that doesn't work,” he said, “particularly when they can do everything and anything with all kind of mobile apps instantaneously. They're not going to have patience with a website that doesn't work, when a lot of people don't think that buying health insurance is a priority for them."
Rep. Timothy Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania who chairs the House Oversight Investigations subcommittee, was blunt in voicing his disappointment.
"We were promised a website where people could easily compare plans and costs. $500 million later, we find that the American public has been duped with the ultimate cash-for-clunker," Murphy said. "Given all these questions, Congress should press pause."
Major hurdles remain to get the system working properly. The New York Times has stated some 5 million lines of code may need to be rewritten. By some estimates, a fully workable site may not be available until mid-December. But the administration says web site experts are working on the problem virtually around the clock.
How long blue-state Democrats can continue to take the political heat in an election year is an open question.
“They're going to put enormous pressure on the administration to take this issue off the table," Viguerie predicted.
Hadley Heath, a policy analyst at the Independent Women's Voice, tells Newsmax that the website problems presage deeper flaws in the healthcare law, “including forced changes to private plans, ever increasing costs, and reduced access to healthcare.
“This immediate technological failure simply illustrates the ineptitude of government when it comes to managing what should be free and personal decisions," she added.
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