Obama administration pushes back over cancelled health plans

Reuters

By David Morgan and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The Obama administration,under pressure over the botched opening of its healthcarewebsite, scrambled on Tuesday to try to appease hundreds ofthousands of people whose coverage is being cancelled asinsurers prepare for reforms in 2014.

President Barack Obama and his top officials are trying tocontain the fallout from people angry they have lost theirinsurance and frustrated with being unable to shop easily foralternatives on the malfunctioning website, HealthCare.gov.

Obama had repeatedly promised that under the new signaturelaw, people with insurance would be able to keep their existingplans if they wanted to - a pledge that glossed over details ofwhich policies would be protected from new minimum benefitrequirements.

"The president, as awesomely powerful as the office is,can't go back in time," White House spokesman Jay Carney toldreporters when asked whether Obama would use the same words todescribe the grandfathering provision.

Obama's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough urged a group ofinsurance executives on Tuesday to tell consumers incancellation notices that they could qualify for premium taxcredits through the new online marketplaces.

Some cancellation victims hear only about costly replacementplans from their insurers and not about options availablethrough the marketplaces, including the subsidies.

"He's saying that we all need to do the best we can ingetting information that consumers need," Carney said.

OBAMA TO DALLAS, SEBELIUS ON THE HILL

On Wednesday, Obama will visit volunteers in Dallas who arehelping people sign up for health insurance - part of a push forsenior officials to highlight the program in cities with thehighest number of uninsured residents.

In Dallas County, more than 670,000 people or 28 percent ofthe total population do not have insurance, the White Housesaid. Texas has the nation's highest percentage of uninsuredpeople.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary KathleenSebelius will face tough questions at a Senate Finance Committeehearing on Wednesday, both from Republicans who oppose Obamacareas an unwarranted expansion of the federal government, and fromDemocrats dismayed at how poorly the launch has gone.

Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the federal agency responsiblefor the Obamacare rollout told lawmakers on Tuesday that herstaff is working on a plan to get more information to peoplewith canceled plans.

"This is actually a conversation we're having today ... Isthere a way we can actively engage to reach out to people whohave been canceled?" Tavenner, administrator of the Centers forMedicare and Medicaid Services, told the Senate Health EducationLabor and Pensions Committee.

In California, officials announced that a major insurer -Blue Shield of California Life and Health Insurance Co - hasagreed to allow 115,000 state consumers who had been notified ofcancellations to keep their lower-priced policies through thefirst quarter of next year.

SUBPOENAED REPORTS

Under Obamacare, it is mandatory for everyone to have healthinsurance or pay a fine. The Patient Protection and AffordableCare Act was passed in 2010 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Courtlast year.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 7 millionAmericans would sign up for insurance in the first year.

The administration had expected about 800,000 enrollees inOctober and November. But the problems reduced that to atrickle. The government will release the month's enrollmentfigures next week.

On Tuesday, a U.S. House of Representatives oversight panelsubpoenaed the Obama administration for internal reports onenrollment.

Officials are racing to fix the website's problems by theend of November in hopes that people will be able to enroll byDec. 15.

Two hospital operators - Tenet Healthcare Corp andHCA Holdings Inc - said on Tuesday that HealthCare.gov'stechnical problems were gradually diminishing.

The law calls for new coverage to kick in on Jan. 1,although the ultimate deadline for signing up without penalty isMarch 31.

During a 2-1/2 hour hearing in the Senate on Tuesday, evenmembers of Obama's Democratic party made plain their concerns.

"There's been fear, doubt and a crisis of confidence," saidSenator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "What I worryabout is that there's such a crisis of confidence that peoplewon't enroll."

Tavenner said the administration plans to start a four-monthmedia campaign in selected markets next month aimed at bringingback uninsured Americans, particularly young adults, who wereunable to enroll.

The administration also will continue to try to shame stateRepublican governments which have opted out of expandingMedicaid programs for the poor such as Texas - part of whatObama's visit to the state will highlight on Wednesday.

"These are the folks who do not have the access tohealthcare, and if they do, it's too expensive for them in thejobs that they have," said Garnet Coleman, a Democratic memberof the Texas House of Representatives.

Expanding Medicaid in Texas would mean about $24 billion infederal revenue to Texas over three years, reducing the costs of"uncompensated care" for people who show up at emergency roomswithout any insurance - costs currently covered by propertytaxes, said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, whospoke to reporters on a conference call organized by the WhiteHouse.

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