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Senators, including Rockefeller and Manchin, air concerns about health care launch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After problems have plagued the health care exchange website, several senators expressed concerns with the site and the health law, asking why the launch couldn't have been delayed.

Open enrollment began Oct. 1 and it lasts through March 31. However, problems started since the launch of healthcare.gov.

Since then, officials have repeatedly assured that problems will be fixed. Senators aired concerns about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during Wednesday's U.S. Senate Committee on Finance meeting.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said even with concerns over the launch of the marketplace, he is "enormously proud of the law."

Rockefeller said many West Virginians have seen benefits through Medicaid expansion.

"But I also want to make the point that the frustration we all feel comes largely from the fact that our hopes and expectations for the new law are so high, and the need for affordable health insurance in this country is so great," he said, "We should not let the marketplace's problems overshadow the lifesaving benefits of the law."

In the finance committee meeting, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said a team is working to fix glitches.

Sebelius noted the last five weeks have been a "miserably frustrating experience" and the site should be running smoothly by the end of November. 

"It's unacceptable," she said. "We are working to fix it and I am accountable."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told Sebelius that officials must "meet, even beat that deadline." 

For fixes, Sebelius said there are two areas of focus -- speed/reliability and fixing bugs and other issues in the system. She said the tech team is on an aggressive schedule to fix bugs by the end of November.

She said healthcare.gov needs a couple of hundred functional fixes and officials are working on the first series on the "punch list." Although Sebelius said officials have made progress on this list, she said they aren't where they need to be.

Sebelius said officials have made progress including fewer error messages and time outs, but there still is work to do.

Several asked Sebelius why the launch wasn't delayed. Sebelius said delay wasn't an option.

"Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's," she said, later adding, "For millions of Americans, delay isn't an option. Too many lives depend on this."

Baucus asked why the administration would keep "limping along" until problems were fixed, instead of just shutting the website down until problems are resolved.

Sebelius said experts looking at the system have determined the site is "fixable, not fatally flawed." She said shutting down the system would not help because it's easier to do routine upgrades.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called ACA implementation an "absolute debacle" and asked Sebelius to provide implementation updates to the committee once a month for the next few months.

Hatch expressed concerns of adequate testing before launch to ensure privacy controls were in place.

"Not only can millions not log in successfully but those who actually succeeded find themselves at the mercy of identity thieves," he said.

Sebelius said that risks were identified in an August preliminary report but no one suggested that risks outweighed going forward.

Hatch and others mentioned concerns over projected increases of health insurance premiums and the president's promise that if people liked their health care plan or their doctor, then they could keep them.

"Put simply, there is a long track record of untruthfulness to this committee and to the American people," Hatch said. "I hope that will stop today."

Sebelius said the health law is working, saying millions of Americans have received benefits under the law. She also said marketplace rates came in 16 percent lower than the Congressional Budget Office projected.

On Wednesday, Rockefeller also addressed concerns other senators had about promises of keeping health insurance plans if people liked them.

He said many of these plans were "expensive" and didn't cover basic services people need to keep low out-of-pocket costs.

Rockefeller sent out a second statement following the hearing, blaming the Republican party for misinforming people about aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

He said very few people are losing their insurance policies. 

"It's really easy to sour people on the law through multiple television ads that attempt to scare people," Rockefeller said in the statement. "Those are completely unrelated to the tragedy of underinsured or uninsured Americans. So I'm expressing sadness today about the ability of the Republican Party to be maniacally political while seeking to destroy this law and forget the extraordinary benefits of this law."

That same day, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he joined attorneys general from nine other states in sending a letter to Sebelius asking to support legislative action to resolve problems in implementing the health care law.

The letter mentioned security concerns and technical difficulties with the site, saying, "it is not only unfair but impractical to require that Americans purchase insurance-or lose their current coverage due to changes in the law-when the exchange website is almost completely unusable." 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said another problem with the law deals with the definition of a full-time employee.

In a letter, Manchin asked Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray and ranking member Jeff Sessions to address legislation, which seeks to define a full-time employee as those who work 40-hours a week.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employees are considered full time if they work 30 hours a week.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also signed the letter.

In the letter, senators express concerns that some businesses have cut employees hours just under the 30-hour limit and said more businesses could do the same.

"By using a threshold of 30 hours a week to define 'full time employee,' (the ACA) artificially drives up the number of workers that appear to be employed 'full-time' by a business, exposing those businesses to the risk of substantial penalties," the letter states. "These penalties begin at $40,000 for businesses with 50 employees, plus $2,000 for each additional 'full-time equivalent' employee.'"

The letter states the legislation would define full-time as working 40 hours a week and would make a matching adjustment in the hours used to calculate a full-time equivalent.

"This sensible definition will help protect millions of employees from having their hours curtailed as a result of the (ACA's) arbitrary and unreasonable definition of 'full time' employee," the letter states. Contact writer Andrea Lannom at Andrea.Lannom@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/AndreaLannom.


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