White House steps up damage control on healthcare rollout

Reuters

* Obama administration officials to meet insuranceexecutives

* Republicans call for delay in tax penalty requirement

By David Lawder and Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The White House sought tolimit the political damage from the troubled rollout of thegovernment's healthcare website on Wednesday as Republicansincreased the pressure to delay parts of President BarackObama's signature domestic policy.

Obama administration officials held a closed-door briefingfor Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a privatesession with insurance company executives to discuss efforts tofix the Healthcare.gov website.

Republican critics in Congress demanded a delay in arequirement of the healthcare law that uninsured Americans mustpurchase insurance or face a tax penalty and said they wouldintensify their investigations into the launch of the 2010Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare."

"It is our job to hold them accountable, and when it comesto Obamacare clearly there is a lot to hold accountable," Houseof Representatives Speaker John Boehner told reporters onWednesday.

The administration is trying to preserve Democratic Partyunity on the issue, which showed signs of fraying. The head ofthe Democratic National Committee, U.S. Representative DebbieWasserman Schultz of Florida, told MSNBC the administrationshould be willing to extend the open-enrollment period forpeople to sign up for insurance. It ends on March 31.

Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, thethird-ranking House Democrat, criticized the website for forcingconsumers to provide private information before deciding whatkind of health insurance plan they want to buy.

"I've talked to too many people who tell me before they everget around to figuring out what it is they want to buy, they'rehaving to answer questions that they don't feel they should beanswering," Clyburn said.

Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate FinanceCommittee, said in a statement that he hopes to meet with othercommittee members in the coming weeks, but said he would waituntil after the website is repaired.

Republicans are not waiting. The House Energy and CommerceCommittee on Thursday will hear from the top contractorsresponsible for the program, including website developer CGIFederal.

'WORKING HARD TO FIX THE PROBLEMS'

Online exchanges, or marketplaces, were designed to be themain way for millions of uninsured Americans to research and buyhealth insurance plans under the law, but the Oct. 1 debut hasbeen marred by technical glitches that have kept many fromsigning on and making purchases. Those unable to sign up onlinecan call a toll-free telephone number as an alternative.

The administration has so far declined to disclose thenumber of enrollments, either online or by telephone.

A prolonged delay in getting Healthcare.gov to work couldjeopardize White House efforts to sign up as many as 7 millionpeople in 2014, the first full year the law takes effect. Theadministration this week began what it called a "tech surge,"bringing in experts led by the administration's top economicaide Jeffrey Zients to analyze and fix the problems.

"I think what we learned is they're working hard to fix theproblems," Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, seniorDemocrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said afterWednesday's briefing.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department will beginregular news briefings on Thursday to provide updates on "theprogress that's being made and on the efforts that are beingundertaken, both to address the technical problems and to makethe whole experience for American consumers better," White Housespokesman Jay Carney said.

House Democrats said there was no discussion in the briefingabout whether the problems should lead to a delay of theindividual requirement that every American have insurance or paya tax penalty. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated adelay would reduce enrollment significantly.

REPUBLICANS DEMAND DELAY

Republicans, who have fought the healthcare law as anunwarranted extension of the federal government, said therequirement should be delayed until the problems with therollout are resolved.

"With so many unanswered questions and the problems arisingaround this rollout, it doesn't make any sense to impose thisone percent mandate tax on the American people," HouseRepublican Leader Eric Cantor told reporters on Wednesday.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to derail or delay thehealthcare law since taking control of the House in the 2010elections. They demanded more answers on Wednesday about thescope of the problems.

Three committees in the Republican-controlled House haveannounced investigations of the law's rollout, which Cantordescribed as "nothing short of a debacle."

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been the focal point ofcriticism and Republicans have demanded she step down, but sofar the White House has rallied around her.

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, told theNew York Times on Tuesday that Sebelius "has the president'sconfidence. And she knows that."

In the same article, an unidentified White House aide alsoappeared to try to distance Sebelius from the website troubles,and was quoted as saying, "Kathleen has the title, but shedoesn't have the responsibility or in many respects the kind ofwide authority and access to the president that she really needsto make a difference."

Sebelius, who will testify to Congress next week, andMcDonough attended the session with insurance companyexecutives. They included the chief executives of WellPoint Inc, Humana Inc and Aetna Inc among others.

WellPoint raised its 2013 membership and profit forecasts inpart to reflect coming market changes under the law, its chiefexecutive, Joseph Swedish, said in a statement on Wednesday.

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