Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shaking her finger in President Barack Obama's face. "Boy, you better listen to me," she may have said. Obama soon walked away., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Obamacare launch hits early hitch as web traffic snarls up sites
By David Morgan and Caroline Humer
(Reuters) - The U.S. government launched the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare reform on Tuesday, opening online insurance marketplaces across the country for millions of uninsured Americans, but technical glitches prevented early access for many.
The first day of the six-month open enrollment period on the state marketplaces, or exchanges, went ahead despite a partial federal government shutdown precipitated by Republican opposition to the healthcare law that deadlocked a spending bill in Congress.
According to early checks, the rollout of the most ambitious U.S. social program in five decades had a rocky start. A federally-run exchange for consumers in 36 states began posting error messages for at least 25 of them soon after the system opened for enrollment at 8 a.m. EDT, citing online traffic as a reason for the difficulties.
An Obama administration official said experts were aware of the issue and were working on it. The Department of Health and Human Services directed consumers to call centers and local community organizers to seek information.
The administration had predicted hitches early on because of the challenge of building a massive technology infrastructure in a short time. The problems could last weeks. Even before Tuesday's launch, officials last week announced delays for exchanges geared toward Spanish speakers and small businesses.
The snags are expected to contribute to a slow start to enrollment and will be a focus of the political debate over whether the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, will succeed.
Frustrated customers are likely to fuel opposition to the healthcare law from Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, who have voted more than 40 times to repeal or delay it.
"It's very significant for the political campaign but not for the enrollment campaign," said Jon Kingsdale, the former head of the Massachusetts state health exchange, which opened in 2006 and became the model for Obamacare.
"I don't know if it's two weeks or five weeks, but I don't think we're talking just days," Kingsdale said. He said if the problems persist until November, "that is really a big problem."
The exchanges, shopping places for people to find out whether they qualify for federal subsidies, will accept applications for the new plans until March 31. They are expected to sign up as many as 7 million people in their first year.
Republicans have fought for years to delay or stop Obamacare, blaming its requirements for pushing up the cost of health insurance for business and individuals. On Monday night, that battle triggered a shutdown of several federal government agencies after Republicans insisted that a routine funding measure include a delay in the law. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected it.
"What I want is to keep the government running and at the same time to deal with the harms, the millions of Americans who are ... at risk of losing their healthcare, are facing skyrocketing insurance premiums," Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has been leading the charge among Republicans in Congress to defund the law, said in an interview with CNN.
The websites will give many Americans their first glimpse of new subsidized health plans that are being offered to millions of the uninsured, in the most ambitious U.S. social program since Medicare was introduced in the 1960s.
Exchanges run by 14 states and the District of Columbia presented a mixed picture early on Tuesday. Some, like Massachusetts and New York, were able to accept consumer log-ins. New York said its site received 2 million hits in the first two hours.
The state-run exchange in Maryland delayed its opening by four hours and Minnesota said it would wait until the afternoon to check its connection with federal databases.
California and Washington state exchange officials said they were ready to open later in the morning as planned.
Obama was scheduled to promote his signature domestic policy achievement on Tuesday, including a meeting in the Oval Office with a group of Americans who stand to benefit from the program.
Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama will also promote the law in the media.
The marketplaces require health plans to provide a broad range of essential benefits that were not necessarily part of individual policies in the past, including mental health services, birth control and preventive care.
The coverage is linked to other insurance market reforms and new consumer safeguards, including a ban on discrimination based on gender and health history.
The Affordable Care Act also mandates that Americans obtain insurance or pay a fine.
Provisions that have taken effect since the law was passed three years ago have already prompted changes in the way insurance companies and hospitals do business, as they prepare for an influx of new insured members.
Shares in health insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna Inc, as well as for hospital operator HCA Holdings Inc, outpaced rises on the broader U.S. stock market on Tuesday.
"For years, the financial, physical or mental health of millions of Americans suffered because they couldn't afford the care they or their family needed," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement on Tuesday. "But thanks to the health care law, all of that is changing.
Today's launch begins a new day when health care coverage will be more accessible and affordable than ever before."
(Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf, Sharon Begley and Curits Skinner in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Grant McCool)
October 1, 2013
U.S. Government Shuts Down in Budget Impasse
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
New York Times
WASHINGTON — The vast machinery of the federal government began grinding to a halt Tuesday morning just hours after weary lawmakers gave up hope of passing a budget in the face of Republican attacks on President Obama’s health care law.
For the first time in 17 years, Congress failed Monday night to agree on a new budget and refused to extend the current one. Without the authority to spend money, the executive branch on Tuesday morning started the process of temporarily mothballing facilities and suspending the many services the government provides.
After a series of back-and-forth legislative maneuvers late Monday night and into Tuesday morning, the House and Senate did not reach a resolution, and the Senate halted business until later Tuesday while the House took steps to open talks.
On Tuesday morning, the Senate rejected the House proposal to begin conference committee negotiations, and the next legislative steps remained uncertain.
More than 800,000 federal workers across the country are bracing for an uncertain financial future in the days ahead as many government agencies prepared to close their doors, set up barricades and turn out the lights.
Traveling in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the shutdown “nonsensical” and said it would lead to the immediate furlough of about 400,000 civilian employees. (Mr. Obama signed legislation late Monday night ensuring that uniformed members of the military will get paid during the shutdown.)
“It does cast a very significant pall over America’s credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens,” Mr. Hagel said. “It’s nonsensical. It’s needless. It didn’t have to happen.”
At the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. pledged to give back a portion of his salary in solidarity with his employees.
“As I’ve made clear to the people in this department, we are all in this together, and whatever pain they suffer, I will share with them,” Mr. Holder said as the shutdown approached.
Even as they contemplated a short-term future without pay, many federal employees headed into work Tuesday morning anyway, the result of a directive at some agencies requiring workers to show up briefly so they can help wrap up their work and shut down their facilities.
At the Federal Communications Commission, officials instructed their 1,716 employees to arrive at work Tuesday for no more than four hours. After that, the agency said, it would send all but about 38 of those employees home for the duration of the shutdown. Those “essential” employees will keep working on programs that address radio interference detection, treaty negotiations and other critical information technology issues, officials said.
The crowds were lighter than normal early Tuesday at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, where there are a number of federal agencies. Phillip Davenport, a management analyst at the Federal Aviation Administration, who was deemed an essential employee, said he was expecting a heavier workload.
During the last shutdown 17 years ago, Mr. Davenport was on active duty in the military, based in Alaska, he said. “Back then, I don’t remember for sure, but we came to work regardless of whether we were paid or not,” he said.
Mr. Davenport said he hoped everyone — including Tea Party members and the president — could come together to end the shutdown. “My hope is that it’s very short and they kind of come to some type of agreement today after they get some rest and kind of get all of the name-calling out,” he said.
Michael Farrier, who is technically a nonessential worker, was told his office in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department would remain open for at least a few days while its dwindling funds lasted.But Mr. Farrier, 34, said his wife, another State Department employee doing long-term training, was told to stay home Tuesday.
“My hope is that there’s a fast resolution,” he said as he stood on a street corner near the National Mall.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Obama described the potential closures in the case of a shutdown. He noted that “every one of the parks and monuments” would be immediately closed. That process began early Tuesday as park officials restricted access to some of the country’s most iconic locations and barricades went up to keep out tourists.
About 8 a.m., the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were being taped off by National Park police, metal barricades were erected and tourists were being turned away. Coincidentally, visitors to Google’s home page on Tuesday morning woke up to a doodle of park ranger patches honoring the 123rd anniversary of Yosemite National Park.
People who do not work for the federal government will also quickly begin feeling the effect of the government shutdown.
After a general retreat on Monday, global investors reacted calmly on Tuesday in the hours after Congressional negotiations collapsed, as investors focused on the Oct. 17 deadline for raising the debt ceiling.
Stocks on Wall Street opened slightly higher, while European and Asian stocks were mixed. The bond and foreign exchange markets were quiet.
Those looking for financial data to assess the impact of a shutdown will have to do it without help from the Congressional Budget Office and the Census, both of which are closing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is scheduled to issue its monthly jobs report this Friday, is also closing.
The National Zoo in Washington closed its gates to tourists. Zoo officials said they planned to flip off the two cameras that feed images to the popular “Giant Panda Cam” Web site for fans wanting to watch the rare new panda cub that was born last month. By 10 a.m., the panda cam said simply: “Error loading stream.”
A message on the zoo’s Web site said that “all vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle paths into the zoo will be closed. None of our live animal cams will broadcast.” The Web site added that “all the animals will continue to be fed and cared for. “
Newspaper headlines in cities across the country Tuesday morning offered a glimpse of the shutdown’s impact and of the nervousness about the future.
“SHUTDOWN,” The Montgomery Advertiser blared. The Anchorage Daily News told its readers that “Park buildings, Head Start centers could close in Alaska.” The Oakland Tribune in Northern California declared “Deadlock in Washington: NO COMPROMISE, NO GOVERNMENT.” The Idaho Statesman’s banner headline said: “This Is how Government Works Now.”
Across Washington — the site of the political paralysis — commercial establishments sought ways to try to minimize the impact of a shutdown that will hit harder here than anywhere else. Late Monday night, several bars and restaurants in the area started advertising “shutdown specials” for those who wandered in.
At Z-Burger, a popular hamburger restaurant in the Washington area, owners pledged to make good on their promise for a free burger for every furloughed federal worker. In a Twitter post, it said: “AlmostHere IF #GovernmentShutdown #FREE #Burgers."
One group of employees who appeared unaffected by the shutdown was those who write news releases on Capitol Hill. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, statements began arriving from lawmakers’ offices.
“Closing down the government strikes at the heart of New Mexico’s economy and our middle-class families,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico. “And that was the decision Republicans made tonight.”
Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, blamed the Democrats: “If we had a functioning Senate we would not be in this position,” he said, adding: “They would rather shut down the government than negotiate.”
As the shutdown approached on Monday, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, sent a classified assessment of its impact to members of Congress on the intelligence committees. One congressional aide said the assessment was “very troubling” to many members because it showed a “very considerable reduction in force while the shutdown goes on.”
The aide, who declined to be named discussing a classified report, said Mr. Clapper declassified one sentence from the assessment: “Approximately 72 percent of the civilian workforce will be furloughed.”
Outside of government, the reaction was swift as well. Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a national conservative group, accused Democrats of burdening American families with Obamacare.
“Now the government has done even worse,” she said in a statement, adding: “The Senate Democrats delivered a triple whammy: shutting down government, bringing chaos and uncertainty to health care which affects American lives, and sticking American families with massive cost increases due to Obamacare — which most Americans don’t want.”
The daily schedule of the House, sent out by e-mail from the office of the majority leader, Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, took a hopeful tone: “Possible further consideration of H.J.Res. 59 — Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014,” it said, using the formal name of a bill that could be used to reopen the government. “Conference Reports may be brought up at any time.”
But those Twitter users who actively follow the United States Geological Service are going to be disappointed. The agency’s Twitter account sent the following message out just before 7 a.m.: “As a result of the lapse in appropriation, we will not be actively using this account until further notice.”
Reporting was contributed by Jennifer Steinhauer from Seoul, Charlie Savage, Emmarie Huetteman and Eric Schmitt from Washington, and Victoria Shannon from New York.