The beginning of open enrollment in the subsidized exchange system launched under President Obama’s health care law came on October 1st, even as opponents of the law in Congress embarked on a last stand which used a government shutdown as leverage to achieve delay of the law.
After years of work and millions of taxpayer dollars spent in the effort, the open enrollment period brought an uneven launch, rife with glitches and technological hang-ups for those seeking to sign up for insurance coverage via the newly created exchanges, with some states announcing last-minute delays to their marketplaces.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, opponents of Obama’s law seized on the problems as indications of the need for delay—pushing the government into a state of partial shutdown after votes which attached a delay of the individual mandate and a rollback of special treatment for congressional lawmakers and staff in the federal budget bill.
“The Obama administration should have acknowledged the ample warning signs of problems in the exchanges and heeded the many calls for delay,” Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Struggle With Launch
Delays were rampant at HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange site used by the vast majority of states to administer their exchanges. For the 36 states where the federal exchange portal is the primary avenue of access, 25 began posting error messages or failing to complete registration by mid-morning on the day enrollment was scheduled to begin.
Though only two states—California and Connecticut—announced signups by midday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hailed the new exchanges as a success, saying in a public statement, “Today’s launch begins a new day when health care coverage will be more accessible and affordable than ever before.”
States which built their own exchanges, such as Oregon, struggled to meet the deadlines necessary to process eligibility for subsidies. Although Oregon was initially hailed as being ahead of the curve in meeting the technological challenges of exchange creation, Cover Oregon executive director Rocky King announced at the day-of press conference that the exchange would not be able to offer insurance purchasing yet, because of glitches in the calculation of determining eligibility.
“Would I have liked to have the Ferrari day one?” King said. “You betcha. Is it a surprise to me? No.”
Cover Oregon would not set a firm date for when citizens could expect to purchase insurance through the exchange. Those who visited the exchange site on October 1 were greeted by the message, “Online enrollment is coming soon! Sign up to receive an email notification when it’s available.”
Mandate, Exemption Under Attack
In votes held over the course of a week, House Republicans attempted to extract first defunding, then delay, of Obama’s entire health care law, before settling on two aspects of the legislation to attack, arguing for a delay of the unpopular individual mandate and the special treatment of members of Congress and their staff.
“Obamacare blocks members of Congress and their staffs from participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program where most of them now purchase health insurance, and thereby denies them the ‘contribution’ the federal government had been making toward their premiums,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute.
The battle over the so-called “exemption” for Congress was spurred by an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) ruling released in February, which initially found Hill staff would not be eligible for their previously generous employer subsidies via the Washington, DC exchange. Under political pressure by the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill, OPM reversed course.
“Should the bosses in America get a better deal than their employees in Obamacare? Should members of Congress get a better deal than every other American in Obamacare? That’s not fair,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) said in remarks on the House floor. “And people wonder why there’s cynicism about Congress, about why Washington elites get to have a better deal than everybody else.”
Obamacare Remains Unpopular
In their push to block Obama’s most prominent domestic policy achievement, Republicans on Capitol Hill were risking their political capital in what some considered a last-ditch effort to block the law’s implementation. But in public remarks, both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) maintained they would not negotiate on a delay in any aspect of the law, in whole or in part.
“We are not going to negotiate on this,” Reid said in a press conference.
For opponents such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the effort to block the law was worth the political risks of a government shutdown.
“President Obama has granted exemptions for big business and Members of Congress, but Senate Democrats refuse to grant the American people the same exemption. Instead, they used political power to maintain their privileged position while doing nothing to respond to the pleas of millions of Americans,” Cruz said in floor remarks.
The longterm endurance of Obama’s health care overhaul could ultimately depend on its political popularity. The final CNN poll taken in the wake of a defunding effort pushed by Sen. Cruz found Americans opposed Obama’s law by 19 points, with 38 percent supporting Obamacare and 57 percent opposing it, including a 40 point margin of opposition among political independents (27 percent support, 67 percent opposition).
“We are stronger when we are united, and we can defeat Obamacare only if Senate Republicans come together, stand with House Republicans, and champion the millions of Americans being harmed by this disastrous healthcare law,” Cruz said.