Health plan delays seen

Washington - Lawmakers from both major political parties on Sunday expressed concern over the botched rollout of the new federal health insurance website, with two Senate Democrats saying the problems are serious enough to justify delays to key provisions of the president's health care law.

Republicans, meanwhile, said that the issues were symptomatic of larger problems with the law and that many of the disadvantages of the program are becoming glaringly apparent now that people are starting to be able to see the quality and cost of the coverage available under the law.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., took to the Sunday talk shows to press for legislation that they said would give people more time to comply with a rule requiring most Americans to carry health insurance starting next year or face a fine.

Manchin advocated for a bill delaying the so-called "individual mandate" for a year. Shaheen proposed extending the open enrollment period beyond its current end date of March 31 to account for all the people who have not been able to buy coverage thus far because of problems with the online shopping site, HealthCare.gov.

"My goal is to fix the Affordable Care Act to make sure those people can get that access to health care," Shaheen said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

She said the rollout of the marketplace has been a "disaster" because so many people have been thwarted by technological glitches as they try to view plan options and prices and enroll in coverage. With a month of the open enrollment period nearly over, it is only fair to extend that period, she said.

The Obama administration has so far dismissed proposals to extend any deadlines. On Friday, officials said they would fix the site by the end of November, giving people four months to buy coverage before they incur a penalty of as much as 1 percent of their income.

Insurers object to any delays in the mandate or penalty, partly because they set their prices for next year under the assumption that large numbers of young and healthy people, who are cheap to insure, would be compelled by the law to join their patient pools.

Neither Democrat echoed some Republicans' calls for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign. On ABC's "This Week," Manchin said he has faith in her ability to lead the implementation of the law.

But Shaheen sidestepped the question, saying the focus should be on fixing the website. "There's going to be plenty of time to place blame on who is responsible," she said.

Meanwhile, people logging on to the new federal health insurance website Sunday encountered a new home page - one that does not feature the smiling brunette whose happy disposition stuck a discordant note for people unable to access the site.

The woman's picture became so closely associated with the site that a number of journalists tried unsuccessfully to track her down. The satirical publication the Onion ran a digitally altered picture of her looking worried, with the headline "People In Healthcare.gov Stock Photos Now Visibly Panicking."

Gone, too, are the cheery pair on the page where users choose their state.

In their place are four new logos, each highlighting a different way that consumers can apply for insurance coverage. The bright circles each link to a different option: the website, paper application, phone line and in-person assisters.

"HealthCare.gov is a dynamic website," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a statement. "As with all websites, we try to make meaningful enhancements and improvements that will help users understand key information, while maintaining the overall familiar design and navigation elements that are working well."

Several Republicans said the site's problems were minor compared with larger problems with the program now coming to light.

"The president made promises that this was going to be cheaper than your cellphone bill, easier to use than Amazon and you can keep your doctor," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., told host George Stephanopoulos on "This Week." "People all across the country, George, are seeing that's just not true."

Last week, Kaiser Health News reported that insurance companies from Pennsylvania to Florida have sent notices to hundreds of thousands of people with private insurance plans that their coverage is being terminated at year's end. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, for example, sent cancellation notices to 300,000 people.

The reason for the notices is that starting on Jan. 1, most private insurance plans must cover a set of 10 basic benefits, including maternity and pediatric dental care. Many plans currently sold on the individual market do not cover those benefits, and such plans are being discontinued.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," however, Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield chief executive Patrick Geraghty pushed back on the characterization that the plans are being "canceled."

He said people are being told that they cannot keep their current plans, but that they have new options that in some cases are better. For many people, he said, their costs may go down because of government subsidies that will be available to low- and middle-income people on the marketplaces, also known as exchanges.

"We're not cutting people, we're transitioning these people," he said. "What we've been doing is informing people that their plan doesn't meet the test of the essential health benefits. Therefore, they have a choice of many options we make available through the exchange, and in fact, with subsidy, many people will be getting better plans at a lesser cost."

Geraghty acknowledged, however, that some people's costs will go up.

A March study commissioned by California's health insurance exchange estimated that Californians who already buy coverage on the individual market but make too much to qualify for subsidies could see their premiums rise 30 percent because of the health care law. The income cutoff for subsidies nationally is 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $94,200 for a family of four in 2013 dollars.

Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, said that the tone of many of the termination letters received by plan holders has apparently not been particularly reassuring. On call-in shows and in other venues where he hears from people whose plans are being terminated, he said, the news is being greeted with panic.

Some consumer advocates worry that the termination letters could be a back-door way for insurers to dump high-cost patients onto the online marketplaces.

Republicans say the letters also prove that the president was wrong when he said people who like their insurance can keep it under the new health care law, a refrain he has repeated at town hall meetings and in interviews.

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