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Lawmakers Shift Attention From Obamacare Website to Law

Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner, left, is welcomed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner, left, is welcomed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A few weeks ago, President Obama defended his signature health care law as "more than a website"; now lawmakers on both sides are increasingly taking this position as well.

Senate hearings this week showed both parties shifting their Obamacare narratives beyond the rocky rollout of the enrollment website to how the law itself will work more broadly. 

"Before we get into the details, I think everyone should take a deep breath," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said Tuesday at the hearing with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner. "This is, after all, a website. This is a machine that will be fixed."

Democrats expressing confidence that the website will be fixed is not surprising, but Republicans are notably assuming the same.

"I'm sure you'll be able to fix the website," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. 

Both sides remain concerned, but in the grand scheme, two months of website problems—assuming it is running successfully by the end of November—are less important than how the law operates once the website is no longer standing in its way.

On that point, however, lawmakers remain as polarized as ever.

"What I'm more concerned about," Alexander continued, "are the canceled policies and the inability of people to have time, after you presumably fix the website by the end of November, to replace their policies by Jan. 1 so they'll actually have health insurance."

For Republicans, concerns like insurance-policy cancellations and premium increases are indicative of larger problems with the law that need to be addressed.

"The website's not working? Fine, let's fix it," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "But the law is not working. Isn't it time for a timeout so that we can go in and start finding out why we are seeing premiums go up, not down; why we are seeing people canceled, not being protected in their health care; why we are seeing the failure of the promised operation of the law to occur." 

Democrats' concerns, on the other hand, are more focused on missed outreach and enrollment.

"What, in your view, Madam Secretary, could Democratic and Republican senators here on the Finance Committee do to make the latest health reforms a success the way the Medicare prescription-drug program has been?" asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The senator drew an oft-made comparison to the now revered Medicare Part D Program that had a notoriously rough start as well.

"I think that it is always welcome to have elected officials in their home states give information to constituents about what the law says, what their options are, what their benefits could be, what choices they have and how to access the process," Sebelius responded.

There is still much work to be done to fix the website this month. "I would say there are a couple of hundred functional fixes that have been identified," Sebelius said. "It's a pretty aggressive schedule to get to the entire punch list by the end of November."

Yet as improvements continue to be made, lawmakers are increasingly moving beyond HealthCare.gov, and looking forward in terms of implementation of the law.  

"Months ago I warned that if the implementation didn't improve, the marketplaces might struggle," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., of the infamous "train wreck" quote. "We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case. But that's in the past. Now it's time to more forward to figure out how to fix it."

This article appears in the November 7, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.

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