WASHINGTON — Each additional piece of bad news about the new health care law — including disappointing statistics released Wednesday — only increases the anxiety level for Democrats facing tough campaign battles next fall.
Democrats had been largely united in supporting the health care law until last month, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. But that was before glitches with the federal website and the cancellation notices sent to millions of Americans for their existing insurance policies.
“Then it all started to fall apart,” said Duffy, noting that some Democrats could be in political trouble because of their support for the law.
Wednesday's news won't help. The Obama administration's statistics revealed what everybody already knew: enrollment through the new insurance marketplaces, so far, has been anemic at best.
During October, the new numbers show, fewer than 27,000 people signed up for private health insurance in the 36 states relying on the problem-filled federal website. Those figures included 338 people in Nebraska and 136 in Iowa.
States running their own enrollment systems did better, signing up more than 79,000, for a total enrollment of 106,185.
Republicans have seized on the health care law's woes.
“While these cancellation notices continue to be sent out in droves, the number of Americans participating in the exchanges remains dramatically lower than what the administration hoped or expected,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
October enrollment was barely one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 sign-ups that administration officials had projected for the first month of President Barack Obama's signature program. Those who were actually able to select a plan represent just 1.5 percent of the 7 million people the administration hopes to enroll by next year.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said things will get better, and quickly. “There is no doubt the level of interest is strong,” she said.
Still, the combination of canceled policies and a glitch-plagued website will mean health care headaches for supporters who are on the ballot next fall. That includes Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.
The House could vote this week on a proposal by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to grandfather existing insurance policies, even if they don't meet new federal standards. The Upton measure could attract some support from Democrats.
During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Braley declined to take a position on the Upton proposal and said he still must review the legislation's details before making up his mind.
But he left open the possibility of making changes to the health care law — although he defended its basic intent.
“We can't go back to what we had before, which left too many people behind and was too expensive,” Braley said. “We need to focus on fixing and improving the Affordable Care Act.”
For example, Braley said he had previously raised the possibility of extending the enrollment period by two months given the problems people have faced trying to sign up on the federal website. The administration has resisted such a move, but Wednesday's figures could add fuel to the push to give people more time.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, blasted the numbers released Wednesday. He said he wouldn't be surprised if the actual figures turn out to be lower, because there are different definitions of what “enrolled” means.
“For every person who has gained coverage through Obamacare, 10 people have lost their current coverage because of Obamacare,” Grassley said. “It should be delayed if not outright repealed for the good of the country.”
Braley pointed out that Iowa's largest insurer in the individual market — Blue Cross Blue Shield, also known as Wellmark in Iowa — made the decision to extend customers' plans into next year and has been advertising heavily to let people know they won't lose their policies in the short term.
That could blunt the immediate pain for some Iowans. But it still means that many in the state could find themselves having to search for a new, potentially more expensive, plan late next year as Election Day approaches.
Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report, noted that Braley and other House Democrats have been put on the record again and again, with dozens of votes attempting to repeal the health care law.
“It's going to be used against him, certainly,” she said.
Polls already show that Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina could be in real trouble as a result of the health care law's problems.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently introduced legislation that would allow people to keep their insurance plans if they like them, in keeping with Obama's now-famous pledge.
Former President Bill Clinton this week urged Obama to accept such a change, although he also praised the overall health care legislation. “The big lesson is that we're better off with this law than without it,” Clinton said in an interview published Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a Democrats-only meeting today with White House health care officials.
The administration has staked its credibility on turning the website around by the end of this month.
From the president on down, officials have said HealthCare.gov will be running smoothly for the vast majority of users by Nov. 30.
But Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said Wednesday's figures demonstrate that the law itself is unworkable.
“The administration might blame so-called technical glitches for the low enrollment numbers, but Nebraskans know the real reason is because Americans do not want this law or the higher costs that come with it,” Johanns said.
Not every Democrat is running away from the health care law.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the law's architects, opted not to seek re-election. He continues to defend the law despite its rocky start, and said Congress should leave it alone.
He said it makes no sense to extend the deadline for people to obtain insurance, because that only encourages people to wait.
“If you extend the time, people just won't sign up,” he said.
Harkin also rejected the idea of allowing people to keep insurance policies that do not meet the law's new requirements. He cited the case of a Florida woman who had been paying $650 a year for an insurance policy that offered almost no coverage whatsoever.
“She was basically paying $650 a year to be uninsured,” Harkin said.
He said the health care law does force some changes because it represents a new value system — one with no room for insurance policies that only cover people if they remain healthy.
“No, someone should not be able to keep an old policy that's a junk policy, because then they're not part of the new value system,” Harkin said.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.