Several Democratic senators are calling on the Obama administration to delay enforcement of the health care law’s individual mandate, joining their Republican colleagues in saying it would be unfair to penalize Americans for failing to buy insurance when the primary sign-up website doesn’t work.
The Democratic dominoes began to fall quickly Wednesday, after Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., circulated a letter urging President Obama to extend enrollment beyond March 31, 2014.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in a statement released late Wednesday, said: “I believe, given the technical issues, it makes sense to extend the time for people to sign up.”
Shaheen and several moderate Democrats supporting her, including Pryor, are up for re-election in 2014, and no doubt taking note of the widespread discontent with the launch of HealthCare.gov.
But political motivation aside, the sudden support from moderate Democrats for delaying the mandate threatens to force President Obama’s hand.
Republicans are already crafting bills to delay the requirement on individuals to buy health insurance. The GOP has the numbers to pass such a proposal in the House; with 15 Democrats, they might be able to muscle something through in the Senate.
Then Obama would have to decide whether to veto.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is not up for election next year, is working on a bill that would delay the IRS penalty for one year for anyone who does not get insurance.
This comes as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., drafts a separate bill to delay the requirement until the system has been certified as working for six straight months.
The White House, while defending the health care law and vowing to fix the problems with the website, has not explicitly ruled out the possibility of delaying the individual mandate. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also backed Shaheen’s call in a written statement Wednesday.
“I have repeatedly said this law is not perfect and have proposed changes to make it work for Alaska families and small businesses,” he said. “Given the recent website issues, I also support extending open enrollment season. I want to work with the administration to ensure that individuals are not unfairly penalized if technical issues with the website continue.”
Other Democratic senators that spoke out in support of Sheehan Wednesday include Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Shaheen, in her letter to Obama wrote: “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. … Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll.”
Other Democrats were less gentle in their complaints.
“The president should man up, let us know who was responsible, who was in charge here and fire them,” Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said “somebody ought to get fired.”
Editorial pages in newspapers across America have been similarly rough on the roll-out, and the law itself.
Obama’s hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, wrote: “The bugs aren’t just in the software. They’re in the law itself.”
Amid the complaints, the administration says its newly hired team of specialists is working around the clock to fix the site. Officials also met Wednesday with top insurance industry executives.
The meeting included representatives from insurance giants like Humana, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
A statement from America’s Health Insurance Plans described it as a “positive and productive meeting” that allowed CEOs to give an “on-the-ground perspective of how open enrollment is proceeding,” including the “ongoing technical challenges.”
Not all Democrats are joining the call for a delay.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi urged the administration to fix the problems but stick to the current set of deadlines.
Some analysts claimed that individuals would have to sign up by mid-February in order to be registered by the end of March and avoid the IRS penalty. But a White House official said Wednesday that is not the case, and the deadline continues to be March 31.