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Health Site Glitches Have At-Risk Democrats Favoring Delay

Oct 29, 2013
Originally published on October 29, 2013 7:57 pm

The messy rollout of the online exchanges under the Affordable Care Act has provided fodder for Republicans determined to make Obamacare an issue in the 2014 elections.

A handful of Democratic incumbents in battleground states are among senators now calling for an extension of the open enrollment period, which could be a way to curry favor in relatively conservative states.

It might be hard to find a senator more obsessed with how well HealthCare.gov is running than Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska. He says he goes on to the site once or twice every day. He'll even poke around while flying from Alaska to D.C.

Begich has already enrolled his brother in Nevada and he's almost done enrolling himself. He says he likes to call the White House when he notices annoying things about the website.

"I joke with the White House all the time that I'm their beta tester senator," Begich says. "I'm constantly sending them notes [and] ideas on how to improve the website."

Begich says it was a no-brainer for him to ask the White House to extend the open enrollment period for every week the exchanges haven't been working.

"The consumer did not cause the problem with the website. Why should they get penalized?" he says. "Why should they have a shorter time to enroll when they did not cause the problems?"

But while Begich says his request was motivated by a sense of fairness, others say politics are at play. Begich happens to be one of five Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who called for delaying the enrollment deadline in a letter to the secretary of Health and Human Services. These Democrats are in Republican-heavy states: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who wrote the letter.

Shaheen told CBS that delaying the deadline is a way to support the health care law.

"My goal is to fix the Affordable Care Act, to make sure people can get that access to health care," Shaheen said. "Unlike a lot of the proposals that we've seen from people whose goal is to repeal it to make sure it doesn't work, I want it to work."

But the move may also be a way for Democrats in more conservative states to earn easy political points, especially at a time when Republicans are highlighting the technical mess by running ads against vulnerable Democrats.

A few House Democrats from districts where these ads are running are already responding. They sent a letter to the attorney general demanding that he decide if the government contractors behind HealthCare.gov breached their contracts and should therefore refund the government. Letters like that, and the one signed by Senate Democrats, are the small gestures that can attract swing voters in conservative states.

Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report says it's easy, like asking someone out on a cheap date.

"For people that are in the middle — moderates, independents, people that are conflicted on the Affordable Care Act — going for a delay of something that's having a really rough launch would seem like an infinitely reasonable thing to do," Cook says.

But Begich chafes at the suggestion that his motives are political. He points out he's pushed for changes to Obamacare for a while, like a two-year delay of the employer mandate.

"I've been very consistent on where I am, but I understand that pundits get into the election cycle mentality, which is I think in a lot of ways creating the inability for us to actually focus on public policy because they always like to interpret things," he says. "None of those pundits have ever called me and asked me what I think."

Some things, Begich says, are actually about fairness, not politics.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The messy rollout of the online exchanges has given fodder to Republicans who are determined to make the health care law an issue in the 2014 elections. And that worries many Democratic lawmakers, including a handful of incumbent senators in battleground states. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, these Democrats are now calling for a extension of the law's open enrollment period.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It might be hard to find a senator more obsessed with how well healthcare.gov is running than Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska. He says he goes on to the site once or twice every day. He'll even poke around while flying from Alaska to D.C. using in-flight Internet. Begich has already enrolled his brother in Nevada and he's almost done enrolling himself, and he says he likes to call the White House a lot when he notices annoying things about the website.

SENATOR MARK BEGICH: I joke with the White House all the time that I'm their beta tester senator. I'm constantly sending them notes, ideas on how to improve the website.

CHANG: So Begich says it was a no-brainer for him to ask the White House to extend the open enrollment period for every week the exchanges haven't been working.

BEGICH: The consumer did not cause the problem with the website. Why should they get penalized? Why should they have a shorter time to enroll when they did not cause this problem?

CHANG: But while Begich says his request was motivated by a sense of fairness, others say politics are at play. He happens to be one of five Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who called for delaying the enrollment deadline in a letter to the secretary of Health and Human Services. These Democrats are in Republican-heavy states: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who wrote the letter.

She told CBS delaying the deadline is a way to support the healthcare law.

SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN: My goal is to fix the Affordable Care Act, to make sure people can get that access to health care. Unlike a lot of the proposals that we've seen from people whose goal is to repeal it, to make sure it doesn't work, I want it to work.

CHANG: But the move may also be a way for Democrats in more conservative states to earn easy political points, especially at a time when Republicans are highlighting the technical mess by running ads against vulnerable Democrats right now, like this one from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

(SOUNDBITE FROM AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is so frustrating. I'm trying to sign up for the new government healthcare program and it just won't work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A lot of folks are having trouble with that. They spend millions of our tax dollars to build it and it won't work. And if you're facing all these issues just signing up, imagine how difficult it could be to get medical care.

CHANG: A few House Democrats from districts where these ads are running are already responding. They sent a letter to the attorney general demanding that he decide if the government contractors behind healthcare.gov breached their contracts and should therefore refund the government. Letters like that, and the one signed by the Senate Democrats, are the small gestures that can attract swing voters in conservative states.

Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report says it's easy, like asking someone out on a cheap date.

CHARLIE COOK: For people that are in the middle - moderates, Independents, people that are conflicted on the Affordable Care Act - going for a delay of something that's having a really rough launch would seem like an infinitely reasonable thing to do.

CHANG: But Begich chafes at the suggestion that his motives are political. He points out he's pushed for changes to Obamacare for a while, like a two-year delay of the employer mandate.

BEGICH: I've been very consistent on where I am, but I understand that pundits get into the election cycle mentality, which is I think in a lot of ways creating the inability for us to actually focus on public policy because they always like to interpret things. None of those pundits have ever called me and asked me what I think.

CHANG: Some things, he says, are actually about fairness, not politics. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.