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Democrats want health law deadlines moved back

Published October 24, 2013 10:23 pm

Penalties • Senators seeking re-election urge that fines be waived for one year.
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Washington • After uniting against Republican efforts earlier this month to delay President Barack Obama's health care law, a growing number Democrats in Congress now want to extend the enrollment deadline, and one senator wants to delay the penalty for not complying.

Six Senate Democrats up for re-election next year have proposed delaying the new March 31 deadline for applying for coverage while the program's problems are ironed out. A seventh, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, is co-authoring a bill to postpone the $95 penalty for people who fail to meet the deadline for acquiring insurance.

While their proposals are short on details, all argue that it's not fair to hold millions of Americans accountable for buying insurance when the primary instrument for enrollment — the HealthCare.gov website — has prevented many people from doing it.

Even the law's biggest boosters are aggravated that enrollment process for the national health care law they had hoped to tout on the 2014 campaign trail has gotten off to such a bad start.

"If we want this law to work, we've got to make it right, we've got to fix it," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the law's leading authors, said at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday on the sign-up problems.

Contractors for the health insurance website told the committee the government failed to thoroughly test the complex enrollment system before its Oct. 1 launch. The system crashed as soon as consumers tried to use it. A web of confusing deadlines and penalties for not obtaining health insurance persists.

As Democrats began to fret about the political consequences ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, the administration late Wednesday said it was granting what amounts to a six-week filing extension. The March 31 deadline for having insurance became the new deadline for applying for it.

But that's not enough for a growing number of Senate Democrats.

Manchin is teaming with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., on a bill that would waive for one year the $95 penalty for not enrolling in the program.

"It should be a transition year. For one year, there should be no fines," Manchin said Wednesday on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

The six Senate Democrats seeking re-election next year urged the Obama administration to postpone the March 31 deadline.

"As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to Obama on Tuesday. Extending the open enrollment period and clarifying other parts of the law, she added, "would be a great start."

Also supporting Shaheen's effort are Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, aides to the lawmakers said.

"I am asking the administration to extend the open enrollment period by two months, and waive the penalty for the individual mandate for the same period of time, to make up for time that is being lost while the website for the federal exchange is not functioning," Hagan said Thursday.

All of the Senate Democrats earlier this month joined in rejecting legislation passed by the House to delay for a year the law's requirement that people buy health insurance as well as the tax subsidies for helping them do it, as a condition for ending the partial government shutdown.