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Obama to announce plans to improve healthcare law

Obama to announce plans to improve healthcare law

HEALTHCARE HEADACHES: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington Nov. 11. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will propose ways to improve his healthcare law, which has been marred by insurance signup difficulties and health plan cancellations, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday.

“The president has instructed his team to come up with options for him to review and you can expect a decision from him and an announcement from him sooner rather than later,” Carney told reporters at a briefing.

The president’s announcement will be about “options that we can take to address the problem … with regard to those individuals who have their individual plans canceled because of the transition,” Carney told reporters at a briefing.

OBAMA TAKES HEAT FROM DEMOCRATS

Obama faced desperate calls on Wednesday from his political allies to swiftly help people whose existing insurance policies are being canceled because of Obamacare, and to fix the program’s broken website by the end of the month.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, seething over the botched startup of Obama’s signature healthcare law, met with administration officials for more than an hour, angry that the botched rollout could become a major political liability for the party during the 2014 mid-term elections.

Obama had repeatedly promised that Americans who liked their health insurance could keep it when the law took effect on October 1, but several million people have received cancellation notices because their plans do not comply with new requirements, such as coverage for mental health treatment and maternity care.

“It got heated,” said Representative Jose Serrano of New York, describing the conversation between his fellow Democrats and administration officials.

“Don’t come here telling us it would be fixed by November 30 because the whole world believes it won’t be fixed,” Serrano told reporters.

Lawmakers also pressed for a quick administrative fix for those Americans facing canceled policies.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. It mandates that most Americans be enrolled for health coverage by March 31 or pay a fine.

It was opposed by Republicans, who see Obamacare as a costly expansion of government, say it is too complicated to work and will lead to higher healthcare costs.

The HealthCare.gov website was to be the main way to choose health insurance, with Obama promising it would be as easy to shop for new insurance plans as it is to buy airline tickets online. It was also seen as the portal by which people receiving cancellation notices could seek affordable alternatives.

But the website has been slow and error-ridden. The Obama administration will provide a glimpse of how the problems have weighed on the insurance exchanges, when it releases enrollment figures on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. (2030 GMT). U.S. officials have said October enrollment numbers will be very low.

Republicans at two oversight hearings on Wednesday questioned administration officials about whether the website will be fixed by the end of November, as Obama has promised, to give people whose plans expire at the end of the year enough time to shop for replacement policies.

Todd Park, Obama’s chief technology officer, stopped short of saying the site would be fixed by the end of the month, in response to several direct questions from lawmakers.

“The team is working really hard to hit that goal and that’s what I’m able to say right now,” Park testified at a sometimes acrimonious House oversight hearing.

DIFFICULT VOTE ON FRIDAY

Republicans and Democrats have drafted legislation that would let Americans keep existing plans, even if the policies do not comply with higher standards set by the law.

Democrats are facing a potentially difficult House vote on Friday, when Republicans present their version of a bill allowing people to keep their current health insurance plans if they like them.

The White House has said that bill would cause more problems than it would fix, and House Democratic leaders have urged their members to vote against it, saying it is merely another attempt to repeal the law, Obama’s biggest domestic policy achievement.

A senior House Democratic aide said that during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats and administration officials, the lawmakers called for Obama to announce a remedy to the canceled policies before Friday’s vote.

Democratic Party lawmakers told reporters that they are also looking at a legislative alternative, but no decisions have been made, with the vote only two days away.

Obama has apologized to Americans for the confusion and promised to look at ways to fix it, but the administration has not provided details.

Outside of legislation, there are a range of possible fixes to allow people to temporarily keep their plans, but many are logistically difficult, legally risky, or could undermine other parts of the law, according to policy experts.

SECURITY QUESTIONS

Republican lawmakers at the House Oversight hearing accused technology officials of not being candid about red flags that the HealthCare.gov website was not ready to go live on October 1.

“This wasn’t a small mistake,” said Darrell Issa, its chairman. “This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad.”

The security of the website has became another target.

At a separate hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, a U.S. cyber security official said HealthCare.gov has already suffered a number of cyber threats, including one attempted denial of service attack that seeks to overwhelm and take down the site, and more than a dozen others.

“This is a goldmine for hackers,” House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said outside the hearing.

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