Obamacare woes move beyond website
By: David Nather
October 29, 2013 03:30 PM EDT
Wasn’t this hearing supposed to be about a broken website?
Tuesday’s hearing about the fumbled Obamacare roll-out was all the proof we needed that the Republicans are serious about their talking point that the law’s problems go beyond the website. They’ve moved on to other things — cancelled individual insurance policies, privacy concerns, and possible nasty surprises for young adults who may not know they can’t get subsidies.
By the end of the three-hour hearing by the House Ways and Means Committee, the bungled HealthCare.gov website wasn’t the star of the show anymore. It was more like one of those bit players who says a few lines and then walks off.
That could have been good news for the Obama administration if they’d been able to change the subject too. But as much as Marilyn Tavenner, who runs the Medicare agency that’s implementing the law, tried to talk up the law’s other benefits, the Republicans’ focus on cancellations and price hikes made it impossible for her to get any traction— and so did her own non-answers to pointed questions.
Here are the top takeaways from the hearing:
Tavenner didn’t have a lot of answers
The administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services learned one valuable lesson from the contractors’ hearing last week: She apologized right away for the technological missteps that are preventing millions of Americans from using the federal enrollment website. That drew a vivid contrast with the contractors, who never showed any remorse.
She didn’t have any answers for Republicans who wanted to know how many people have successfully enrolled in the Obamacare health insurance exchanges, including the federal one. “We’ll have those numbers available in mid-November,” she said over and over again as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp pressed her for hard information.
“How do you not know how many people are enrolled?” Camp asked.
“Chairman Camp, we’ll have those numbers available in mid-November,” Tavenner answered.
She also couldn’t say how many young adults were in the mix or how the website can effectively warn adults under age 26 that they won’t get a subsidy because they can stay on their parents’ plans.
And she didn’t have a direct answer when Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) asked whether she could guarantee that no one would have a gap in their health insurance, if their old individual policies are being cancelled and they can’t sign up for a new one by Jan. 1.
“What I can guarantee is that we have a system that works,” Tavenner said. “It’s working. It’s just not working at the speed that we want.”
Cancelled policies are the new broken website
By far, the biggest focus of the hearing was the cancellation letters people with individual health insurance are getting from their insurers — as customers are told that their old individual insurance doesn’t meet Obamacare coverage standards, so they have to buy new insurance that can be far more expensive.
One Republican after another read Tavenner letters from constituents who were losing their individual health plans and being told to switch to an Obamacare plan. That’s a clear violation, they said, of President Barack Obama’s promise that if people like their health plan, they can keep it.
“Can you understand the level of concern from Americans that this was a false claim? Diane knows exactly what kind of coverage she wants,” said Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), referring to a constituent with breast cancer who told him in a letter that the new coverage she was being offered would be twice as expensive as her old coverage.
Tavenner, however, said the Obama administration was always trying to protect the majority of Americans who get their health coverage through the workplace — implying, but never quite saying, that people who buy their own health coverage couldn’t count on that same protection.
“I understand that for the 86 percent of Americans who have employer-sponsored insurance, they’re satisfied with those plans,” Tavenner told Roskam. But the health care law has tried to repair the longstanding problems in individual market coverage, she said, that forced people to lose their insurance or face big rate hikes when they got sick. “That’s what we were trying to fix,” she said.
The main issue is with individual insurance that didn’t get “grandfathered” status that could have protected it from having to meet Obamacare coverage standards — and Tavenner made it clear that the Obama administration is blaming health insurers for changing people’s coverage enough to lose that status.
“If they offer new plans, they have to come into the requirements of the Affordable Care Act,” Tavenner said.
She advised anyone who gets a cancellation notice from their insurer to look at Obamacare plans to see if they can get a better deal, especially if they qualify for a subsidy. But Republicans argued that they don’t really have that option because of the website problems — or even through the call center, which has to rely on the website, too.
“You’re encouraging people to call and talk to someone who has to use the same website that we’re encouraging our constituents not to use,” said Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio).
Republicans are looking way beyond the website
The Republicans at the hearing cast a wider net than the website problems, but this time, it didn’t come off as just more unfocused anger at Obamacare. They were more methodical about raising other issues that could become problems down the road — and not just the cancellation notices.
Camp told Tavenner he was worried that the website problems were discouraging young adults from enrolling, which could throw the demographic mix out of balance because healthy people are needed to help pay the costs of sick people. If the Obamacare plans don’t enroll enough young adults, “it’s very clear that the premiums will go through the roof, whether it’s in the next few months or in the future,” Camp said.
Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) asked Tavenner how the website is verifying that young adults under age 26 don’t have access to a parents’ plan — because if they can stay on that plan, they wouldn’t qualify for subsidies if they enroll in an Obamacare plan.
If those young adults aren’t warned, Ryan said, they could face a nasty surprise at tax time when they find that they didn’t qualify for the subsidies and have to pay them back.
“This is what I mean when I say rude awakenings,” Ryan said.
And Sam Johnson (R-Texas) raised privacy concerns with the website, citing an unlikely source — Mother Jones — that recently ran an article headlined, “How HealthCare.gov Could Be Hacked.”
“Is the Obamacare website 100 percent safe from hackers who could steal Americans’ personal information, including Social Security numbers?” Johnson asked.
Tavenner’s answer wasn’t exactly a direct yes or no: “We follow all the standards to protect personal information, including Social Security numbers.”
Tavenner throws CGI under the bus
The Medicare agency head did give a little payback to CGI, the lead contractor on the HealthCare.gov website, for dumping all of the site’s problems in the agency’s lap at the Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week.
Tavenner’s written testimony said that “a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations.” She didn’t actually read that line in her opening statement, but when Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) asked about it, she got more specific.
“We’ve had some issues with timely delivery … That contractor was CGI,” Tavenner said. “We’re working with them.”
When asked about that statement later, Camp just laughed.
“I can’t believe there weren’t regular reports from the contractors to the agency,” Camp said. He said he’d like to ask the contractors about that in the future.
The Democrats wasted their time
If the committee Democrats were upset by the website’s failures, you could hardly tell from their questions.
Unlike the Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats — some of whom blasted the breakdowns as harshly as the Republicans did — the Ways and Means Democrats spent all of their time focusing on good news with Obamacare, like the state-run health exchanges that are successfully enrolling customers, and attacking the Republicans for trying to kill the law.
Some Democrats didn’t even ask Tavenner a question — they just used their time to make speeches and score points against the Republicans.
“They’re looking for problems to exploit. We can fix a broken website, but we can’t fix broken ideas or a broken agenda, and that’s all they’re offering,” said Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). “I’m not asking you to comment – I’m just making a rhetorical statement.”
Not all Democrats left it at that, though. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) asked Tavenner for quicker reports on the qualifications of the “navigators” — outside groups that are helping with outreach to potential customers — saying they’re crucial in states like Texas, where the Republican state leaders oppose Obamacare and aren’t lifting a finger to help.
“Surely there are some reports you could make available about whether the navigators are doing more than the little that I’ve seen them do in my part of Texas,” Doggett asked.
Tavenner’s no match for John Lewis
There was one special challenge Tavenner couldn’t meet, and probably no other administration witness could have met either: following John Lewis.
The Georgia Democrat, a former civil rights leader, hasn’t lost any of the thundering cadences of his speeches from the civil rights era — and he used them to full effect Tuesday, as he challenged Tavenner to list all of the good things Americans will get out of the law.
“There has been a deliberate and systematic attempt … to make it impossible for people to receive quality, affordable health care. And some of us will not stand for it,” Lewis shouted in his booming voice, pounding the dais with his fist. “We will fight for what is right and what is fair and what is just.”
After he finished — and a single audience member clapped for the emotional speech — Tavenner did the best she could. She cited a few talking points about the 6.6 million young adults who can stay on their parents’ plans, the 7.1 million seniors who are getting help with the “doughnut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage, and the slower growth in employers’ health insurance premiums.
And with that, all of the electricity left the room.