WASHINGTON/DALLAS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama met on Wednesday with frustrated Senate Democrats, some of whom fear the disastrous rollout of his signature healthcare law could complicate their already difficult re-election fights in 2014.
The Obama administration has faced intense criticism since hundreds of thousands of people had their health insurance policies canceled because the plans do not meet new benefit requirements, despite Obama’s pledge that Americans could keep their current plans under Obamacare.
The fallout has been exacerbated by the fact that those affected cannot shop easily for insurance alternatives on the malfunctioning website, HealthCare.gov.
Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, sat down with 16 Senate Democrats, 15 of them who are up for re-election next year, many of them facing competitive races.
One of the senators, Mark Begich of Alaska, said he expressed his frustration at the website during the two-hour session. It has not worked properly since going live on October 1.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can’t deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website,” Begich said.
Senate Mark Pryor of Arkansas said after the meeting, “The American people are frustrated with the White House’s botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and I am too.” Pryor said he wants Obama to hold “individuals in charge” accountable for the launch.
The meeting came just before Obama left for Dallas to speak at two fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Obama told donors that 2014 congressional elections would be a tough fight.
“The math is difficult for the Senate,” Obama said. “If we don’t give them the help that they need, then we could end up with a situation in which we’ve got a majority Republican Senate along with a majority Republican House.”
In a sign of its political potency, the rocky launch of Obamacare appeared to help Republican Ken Cuccinelli cut into the lead enjoyed by Democratic Party insider Terry McAuliffe, who won Tuesday’s election for Virginia governor.
‘GOING TO GET THIS DONE’
Some of the senators have said they want the enrollment period extended beyond March 31. But Obama believes there is enough time to fix HealthCare.gov and get people enrolled, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“We’ll be able to do that within the six-month enrollment period that we talked about,” Carney said aboard Air Force One.
As many as 7 million Americans were expected to sign up for coverage in the first year through the online exchanges established under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, mandates everyone have healthcare insurance coverage or pay a tax.
A significant shortfall in enrollees, particularly among young and healthy people who cost less to insure, would undermine the ability of the exchanges to work financially.
Before the fundraisers in Dallas, Obama met about 100 volunteers helping people sign up for health insurance.
Dallas-Fort Worth has 1.1 million people without health insurance. In his motorcade, Obama passed protesters holding signs saying: “LIAR!” and “No Obamacare.”
He got a warm welcome from volunteers and thanked them for their help and urged them to keep working with the uninsured.
“I just want all of you to remember that as challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as Healthcare.Gov may be sometimes, we are going to get this done,” Obama said.
Obama’s top healthcare lieutenant was on Capitol Hill again on Wednesday where senators from both parties asked for details on the problems.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, said he was disappointed to hear the administration say it did not see problems with HealthCare.gov coming.
“When we asked for updates on the marketplaces, the responses we got were totally unsatisfactory. We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case,” he told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Obama said the website should be operating smoothly for most people by the end of November.
“Right now, I‘m not happy with some IT (information technology) people in Washington,” he told donors at one of the fundraisers in Dallas.
His comment came after a shakeup at the government technology office that supervised HealthCare.gov.
Tony Trenkle, head of technology at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is leaving the agency for the private sector, CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said on Wednesday.
She said he “oversees all of our IT functions,” but declined to describe his role in the website or say whether he had been asked to leave.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney