Health Care

Democrats Warm Up to a Delayed Obamacare


Sebelius discussing the Affordable Care Act in September

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sebelius discussing the Affordable Care Act in September

U.S. Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will undoubtedly face hostile questions from Republicans when she appears before a House committee tomorrow to discuss the malfunctioning healthcare.gov. Will she also get less-than-sympathetic queries from Democrats nervous that the Obamacare website’s troubles could jeopardize their reelection chances?

It would be foolish for Sebelius to expect anything else. Earlier today, Democrats such as  Representative Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania expressed displeasure with the botched healthcare.gov debut when Marilyn Tavenner, head of HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, testified before a second House committee. Tavenner, whom the New York Times refers to  as an “obscure federal bureaucrat,” directly oversaw the website’s development, but Sebelius is ultimately in charge.

A growing number of Democrats are calling for extending the March 31 deadline for signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to give the White House time to ensure that people can actually use the website to purchase insurance, something few have been able to do since its unveiling on Oct. 1. This is a telling shift: Until now Democrats on Capitol Hill have been unified in their support for the law.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the first Democrat to call for extension of the enrollment period, according to Buzzfeed. She has since been joined by fearful colleagues that include Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who supports a one-year delay on the individual mandate requiring people to purchase health care or pay a fine.

Republicans are no doubt enjoying the dissension across the aisle, but what if these worried Democrats are acting in the law’s best interests? It’s possible that the only people willing to wade through a glitchy website will be those with pressing health problems. The problem is that insurers participating in Obamacare need younger, healthier people to pay into the system to offset the cost of covering older, sicker Americans who sign up. If that doesn’t happen, Obamacare will be in trouble.

So it might makes sense to delay a full-blown launch until healthcare.gov becomes more user-friendly. If not, this could be endanger Democrats who backed the law.

Then again, as the New Republic‘s Jonathan Cohn notes, we may not know the likelihood of this doomsday scenario until the last minute: “People don’t sign up for health insurance programs right away. They wait until the last minute. This is true of public insurance and this is true of private insurance.”

The White House insists that the website will be fixed by November. If that’s true, nervous Democrats should calm down. Everything should be fine long before election day, which remains more than a year away. But this requires faith that the same HHS officials behind the bungled launch will prove up to the task of fixing the website. Are nervous Democrats willing to make that wager? We’ll see after Sebelius testifies on Wednesday.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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