WASHINGTON (AP) — Move over, website woes. Lawmakers confronted the administration Tuesday with a difficult new health care problem — a wave of cancellation notices hitting individuals and small businesses that buy their own insurance.
Officials note that these affect policies that don't comply with the new health care law and that people who get cancellation notices will be able to find better replacement plans, in some cases for less.
At the same time, the federal official closest to the federal website apologized for its dysfunction in new sign-ups and asserted things are getting better by the day.
Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner said it's not the administration but private insurers who are responsible for cancellation letters now reaching many of the estimated 14 million people who buy individual policies.
The Associated Press reported in May that many carriers would opt to cancel policies this fall and issue new ones.
The insurance companies saw that as easier than changing existing plans to comply with the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that policies cover more services and provide better financial protection against catastrophic illnesses.
While the administration had ample warning of the cancellations, they could become another public relations debacle for health care law. This problem goes to the credibility of one of President Barack Obama's earliest promises about the law: You can keep your plan if you like it.
Large employer plans that cover most workers and their families are unlikely to be affected.
The cancellation notices are now reaching policyholders, and they've been complaining to their lawmakers — who were grilling Tavenner on Tuesday.
“Based on what little information the administration has disclosed, it turns out that more people have received cancellation notices for their health care plans this month than have enrolled in the (health care website),” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich.
As with most oversight hearings that deal with any aspect of the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday's session often drifted into emotional political arguments about the merits of the contentious health law and the intent of Republicans to kill it.
At one point, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., rose from his seat, pointed directly at Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., and began loudly questioning the veracity of Griffin's claim that House Republicans had presented a viable alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
“After what we've gone through in the last three and a half years, you can sit there and say that you had a legitimate alternative?” Pascrell said incredulously.
It could take months to sort out the balance of individual winners and losers. There's not a central source of statistics on how many people have gotten cancellations. Even the number of people who buy insurance individually is disputed.
It isn't the administration's fault, said Tavenner. “In fact the issuer has decided to change the plan; (they) didn't have to.”
Obama's promise dates to June 2009, when Congress was starting to grapple with overhauling the health care system to cover uninsured Americans.
“If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period,” he said in remarks to the American Medical Association. “No one will take it away, no matter what.”
Some immediately saw the promise as too broad to deliver on, given that health plans are constantly being changed by the employers that sponsor them or by private insurers directly.
Nonetheless, Democrats in Congress devised a complicated scheme called “grandfathering” to try to make good on Obama's pledge. It shields plans from the law's requirements, provided the plans themselves change very little. Insurers say it has proven impractical.
Tavenner also delivered the most direct mea culpa yet from the administration for the technical problems that have kept many Americans from signing up through HealthCare.gov.
“I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should,” she told the committee.
The first senior official to publicly answer lawmakers' questions, Tavenner was pressed not only on what went wrong with the website but also whether lawmakers can trust recent promises that things will be running efficiently by the end of November.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, is scheduled to appear today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Tavenner declined to provide enrollment numbers, repeating nearly 20 times they will not be available until mid-November. But she did try to lower expectations of a strong initial sign-up.
But while she admitted the failings of the site, Tavenner tried to hold back a bipartisan clamor for a delay in enforcement of the requirement for most Americans to carry health insurance starting next year.
Tavenner said consumers could seek help from a telephone call center established by the government (800-318-2596). To enroll, she said, “there are more methods than just the website.”
This report includes material from the New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers.
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