Obamacare Exchanges Open Despite Government Shutdown
The first health care exchanges created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have opened to consumers today despite the shutdown of the U.S. federal government.
Congressional Republicans shut off the funding spigot to all non-essential federal services starting today by refusing to pass a spending bill unless President Obama agrees to strip funding to the ACA, which passed in 2010 and is scheduled to go into full implementation in 2014.
However, the money for the bill, including tax credits and Medicaid expansion, is categorized as a mandatory, not discretionary, portion of the budget, so most of the reform’s functions should continue even as other machinery of the federal government grinds to a halt.
“The Affordable Care Act is moving forward,” President Obama told Congress last night before the shutdown. “That funding is already in place. You can’t shut it down.”
“Come Tuesday, Americans will be able to see for themselves that the Affordable Care Act isn’t actually about Washington politics,” Vice President Joe Biden wrote in an op-ed printed in a number of newspapers yesterday. “It’s about regular people shopping for insurance they can finally afford, and purchasing security and peace of mind along with it.”
The exchanges, designed to make it easier for individuals to shop and compare prices on different health insurance plans, allow people to sign up for coverage that will be available Jan. 1. However, consumers who attempt to enroll right away may be thwarted not by Congress but by technical glitches and servers overrun by Internet traffic.
Residents of 36 states need to use a federal exchange, set up on Healthcare.gov, while 14 states have opted to set up their own exchanges. Healthcare.gov was turning away users Tuesday with the message, “Please wait. We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!” while several state exchanges were having their own problems.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed the setbacks in advance, telling reporters in a briefing yesterday that some bugs in the system were to be expected. “We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” she said, “and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”
Starting next year, most individuals in the country will be required to carry health insurance or pay a penalty. People under a certain income threshold who buy their coverage on an exchange will be eligible for federal tax subsidies to help offset the cost.
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for a plan that would be active on Jan. 1.
“Shutdown or no shutdown, we’re ready to go to start enrolling people,” Sebelius said. “We’re about to make some history, and I think some very positive history for lots of families in the country.”