Senate Dems Scramble To Save Face Amid Woeful Obamacare Rollout

November 13, 2013 11:25 a.m.

Senate Democratic leaders have no imminent plans to hold a vote on legislation to “fix” Obamacare and are instead working with the White House on administrative solutions to address insurance cancellations under the law, according to party leadership aides.

But Democratic senators are deeply divided and scrambling to deal with the political fallout of canceled plans and Obamacare’s troubled rollout, compounded Wednesday by underwhelming early enrollment numbers released by the Obama administration. Many feel the need to support some sort of legislative fix, especially vulnerable members up for re-election in 2014.

Five Democrats have backed legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to let people on the individual market keep their health plans (whether or not they meet Obamacare’s minimum benefits standard). Liberal Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) signed on Wednesday morning, joining Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Mark Pryor (D-AR). A competing bill, introduced Wednesday afternoon by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who also faces re-election in 2014, would let people keep their health plans through Dec. 31, 2015. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, his office said.

“I have repeatedly said that the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect, and it will need to be improved as it is implemented,” Udall said. “This common-sense bill ensures the health reform law allows Coloradans to maintain insurance coverage.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declined to answer questions about health care at his press briefing Wednesday, saying that all Democratic senators would meet with White House officials on Thursday to discuss the way forward on Obamacare.

“Today, I’m not going to talk about health care,” Reid told reporters. He said President Barack Obama called him late Tuesday night to talk about health care and others issues.

But two key authors of Obamacare said they aren’t supporting any legislative fix.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) said he wants to see the issue of cancellations addressed but not necessarily through legislation.

“Cancellations must be addressed sooner rather than later. And I’m working with the administration to find a policy that makes sense. Clearly it’s an issue that has to be resolved,” Baucus told TPM. He added: “I’m not supporting any bills. I’m working with the administration to see what general approach makes the most sense.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) urged Democrats not to retreat from Obamacare because the “new value system” of making sure consumers are provided a basic standard of coverage is worth it. “To the extent that we start picking up on what Sen. Landrieu wants,” he said, “we never move to the new system.”

“We don’t want to continue those bad policies. People had policies that were good for them as long as they were healthy,” Harkin said. “It’s not even a short-term fix. It’s not the way to go. Let’s stick to what we’ve got. They’re fixing the website — people can still sign up with paper or phone … And it’s going to get even better. So I don’t see any problems.”

Harkin said the low early enrollment “doesn’t bother me a bit,” citing the Romneycare experience in Massachusetts, when the vast majority signed up for insurance toward the end.

Landrieu defended her legislation to reporters on Wednesday, saying that while she wants to allow people to keep their plan if they choose to, her hope is that “they will actually find better options that they then will choose, voluntarily, [to buy insurance on] the exchanges, if we can ever get them open and operating.”

“While I’m working hard to fix the portions of the ACA that need to be fixed or strengthened, I do not lose sight of the extraordinary promise of this bill,” the Louisiana senator said. “That is what I’m fighting for — to fix it, not undermine it. … There’s lots of interest in [this bill].”

She attacked a House GOP bill with a similar intent, saying it “guts and undercuts and drives a mad truck through the Affordable Care Act.” She criticized the legislation, offered by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), for allowing insurers to sell existing, substandard policies to anybody in 2014, not just people who are currently enrolled in them. (In a different way, Landrieu’s bill goes farther than Upton’s, by requiring — rather than simply allowing — insurers to continue the policies, and indefinitely, rather than just in 2014.)

Merkley also defended his support for the bill, arguing that there was a “flaw” in the “grandfathering” clause and positing that insurance policies in effect as of 2013 — rather than 2010, as under the law — should be permitted to continue even if they fail to meet the law’s essential health benefits standard. “So the Landrieu bill fixes that,” he said.

He told TPM that the prospect of higher costs and disrupting insurers’ plans, as experts have warned of under the Landrieu bill, “is a concern.” But “on balance,” Merkely said, “the promise made needs to be a promise kept.”

Manchin needled the White House on fixing the problems with the website by the end of November, as it has promised. “If the fix is not in by the end of this month,” he said, “that’s another date missed.”

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