WASHINGTON D.C. (CBS) - Frustrated by the troubled rollout of the healthcare exchanges, a handful of Democrats are floating the idea of delaying the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act exchanges in order to allow users more time to sign up for insurance and avoid being hit by tax penalties.
As the law stands, open enrollment on the exchanges will end on March 31. For the first year that taxpayers do not sign up for insurance for 2014, they will have to pay a penalty of $95 or up to one percent of income. The next year that fine increases to $325, and it eventually rises to $695 by 2016.
The push began Tuesday with a letter from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., encouraging the president to extend the period of time in which users are allowed to sign up.
"Given the existing problems with the website, I urge you to consider extending open enrollment beyond the current end date of March 31, 2014. Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll," Shaheen wrote. "Further, in light of the difficulties individuals may be having with enrolling through healthcare.gov, I ask that you clarify how the individual responsibility penalty will be administered and enforced. If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage."
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Mark Begich, have seconded Shaheen's idea. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., went a step further: he is authoring legislation to delay the $95 penalty imposed on those who don't buy insurance, his office said.
Pryor and Begich both face tough re-election campaigns in 2014 where distancing themselves from the White House could be seen as an asset.
The movement does not appear to be as widespread in the House. Earlier today, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., became the first House Democrat to call for a delay in enforcement of the individual mandate, along the lines of the Obama administration's decision to delay for a year the requirement that employers offer health insurance to their employees.
"This isn't about pointing fingers. This is about providing some relief to the folks we represent who are facing serious uncertainty because they're being forced to buy something that's just not ready," Barrow said on the House floor. "I urge my colleagues and the Administration to delay the individual mandate. It's not only the right thing to do, it's the only practical thing to do."
There does not seem to be an appetite from either Democrats in leadership or the administration for making these tweaks, which could be seen as a concession that the law isn't working. "I think we should be able to go forward," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Tuesday after her caucus received a briefing on the Affordable Care Act from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
"What I can tell you is that today Americans have access to affordable coverage - today," said White House spokesman Jay Carney when asked whether President Obama would consider a delay of the individual mandate. "That was true on October 1st. They can enroll in four ways...and we are working on the problems that are real and significant and unacceptable that exist in one of those avenues to enrolling, on the website.
White House officials met Wednesday with the CEOs of several major insurance companies to discuss the open enrollment process. One of the glitches faced by insurance companies is problems with the computerized forms they receive, known as 834s, which include instructions on who is signing up for insurance and what exactly they need. Some of those forms have been arriving with errors.
"We had a candid discussion on the challenges facing the exchange, and the plan that is being put in place to get the program on track," said a statement from AETNA, whose CEO, Mark Bertolini participated in the meeting. "We hope this dialogue continues until the major problems are fixed.
Robert Zirkelbach, the Vice President of Strategic Communications at America's Health Insurance Plans, called the meeting a "positive and productive" discussion of the technical challenges the insurers face. "Our industry is committed to working with the administration to help ensure individuals and families are able to get the health care coverage they need," he said.
The White House said the meeting was another example of the ways they are working to ensure people are able to purchase insurance.
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