Obamacare signups system 'ready to go,' shutdown or not

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WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans' threat to stop funding the federal government come next Monday won't stop the Affordable Care Act's online insurance markets from opening on Tuesday, top White House aides say.

"Whether there is a government shutdown or not, our call centers will be ready to go," David Simas, deputy senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said Wednesday. "The phones will be answered" and enrollments will be accepted, he said.

His comments came as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrapped up a 21-hour speech opposing implementation of the health care act, and as other conservatives, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, were working to dismantle it.

"Since the bill was enacted, it was my goal -- and it continues to be my goal -- to completely repeal Obamacare," Mr. Toomey said in a conference call with reporters. "This is a bill that is simply not fixable. It is damaging our economy, it is costing us jobs, it's reducing paychecks [and] it's shrinking hours worked."

But, he said, as long as Democrats control both the White House and Senate, repeal isn't possible. That's why he's turned his attention to amending the Affordable Care Act -- for example, by removing a provision to tax durable medical goods.

That's a move that has bipartisan support in the Senate, but Mr. Obama has threatened to veto.

If Senate Democrats won't allow votes on that amendment and others, Mr. Toomey says he is prepared to work with other conservatives to derail a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government. Current spending authorization runs out Monday.

Their aim is to prevent Senate Democrats from stripping a provision from the continuing resolution that would defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Mr. Toomey said he doesn't want a government shutdown, and there doesn't need to be one.

The administration, meanwhile, is moving full speed ahead on implementing the health care law.

Aides aren't expecting an overwhelming influx of enrollments Tuesday, the first day of a six-month open-enrollment period. Rather, top aides expect people to merely start looking at their options.

"This is the beginning of the [enrollment] period, not the end of the period, not the most important day in the period," Mr. Simas said.

Those who want to sign up right away can, but most are expected to wait until spring, just before the April 1 deadline for most Americans to have coverage or risk fines, Mr. Simas said.

His comments came as his boss was preparing to make a hard pitch for enrollment in the health care marketplace. Mr. Obama is expected to address a crowd today at Prince George's Community College in the latest of a series of policy speeches focusing on needs of the middle class.

Thursday, Mr. Simas walked a group of Washington reporters through the steps of enrolling online -- a process he said should take between eight and 10 minutes for an individual.

Customers need only enter their names, birthdates and gross incomes. That will instantly bring up information about eligibility for government insurance subsidies. Next, the website will show price ranges for various coverage tiers ranging from platinum, which covers 90 percent of medical costs, to bronze, which covers 60 percent.

Users can click through to see variations in coverage, deductibles and network providers.

When they're ready, they can enroll and pay the first month's premium online. The government will automatically forward the subsidized portion of the premium directly to the insurance company.

Best of all, Mr. Simas, said, there are no questions about pre-existing conditions, which, under the old system, could result in high premiums or, worse, denial of coverage.

"The economic model of insurance to this day has not been to bring more customers in; it's to bring healthy customers in, because you don't make money off sick people," he said.

The opening of the markets -- also known as insurance exchanges -- will fundamentally change the health care system, Mr. Simas said.

Enrolling is simple, he said, but he stopped short of predicting the kickoff would be free of problems.

There will be "glitches," he said, but employees will be ready to fix them.

To learn more about the exchanges or -- after Tuesday -- to enroll, visit www.healthcare.gov.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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