By David Espo
WASHINGTON: Under growing pressure, the Obama 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 the Affordable Care Act.
An earlier controversy appeared to be receding, meanwhile, as the administration reported progress in fixing problems with a federal health-care enrollment website that launched Oct. 1. 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 an 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, R-Mich., the House Ways and Means Committee chairman. He said the material was “critical government information” that the administration has refused to provide voluntarily, and demanded that it be turned over by Friday.
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 HealthCare.gov.
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 …vare secure? Will you shut down the website, as my friends from the left have already suggested, until security issues are fixed?”
Tavenner offered reassurances, and said officials from her agency were attempting to get in touch with the man whose information had been disclosed.
Scott said what the “consumer sees is not what’s going wrong, it’s that their confidence is going down.”
Bills on reinstating plans
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 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 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.
Obama’s pledge clarified
Shifting the focus away from what Obama has said repeatedly, Carney 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.