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In Twin States, Approval of Extension

President Obama speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

West Lebanon — Members of Congress from the Twin States largely support President Obama’s call to let Americans keep health care plans that would not have been allowed next year under the Affordable Care Act, saying the move was necessary amid the troubled rollout of the new online insurance marketplaces.

The announcement for people with individual insurance policies that carriers had said might have to be canceled came just a day after a report revealed disappointing enrollment figures for coverage through the online marketplaces, also known as “exchanges.”

Only 269 people in New Hampshire were able to pick a plan through the federally run HealthCare.gov website since its Oct. 1 launch, and just 3,746 individuals have done the same in Vermont’s state-run exchange.

Technical problems have prevented many people from accessing coverage.

And Obama has been criticized for his previous assurances that “anyone who likes their plan can keep it,” as the opposite has proved true in many cases.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in a telephone interview Thursday. “A promise made is a promise to keep, and this will allow folks who have a policy to keep the policy they have. So it’s the right thing to do.”

“Despite my significant frustration with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, I remain committed to increasing access to affordable health care for hardworking Granite State families,” U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said in a statement. “To that end, I support efforts to ensure that people who like their current plans are able to stay on them for another year.”

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was the most critical of the president’s proposal, saying that it still doesn’t address larger problems within the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. She has repeatedly called for a “time out” on the federal health reform law and is cosponsoring legislation that would delay both the individual and employer mandates for one year.

“The president is punting the responsibility of fulfilling his promise that Americans would be able to keep their health care plans — and his proposal doesn’t come close to solving any of Obamacare’s underlying structural problems that have resulted in cancelled policies, increased premium costs, and lost work hours,” Ayotte said through a spokeswoman. “There should be a complete time out on Obamacare so that Congress can repeal this unworkable law and enact real reforms that will allow Americans to have access to the health care they need, from the doctor they want, at a price they can afford.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., maintained that the Affordable Care Act was an important, albeit “modest step forward to address some of the problems” in the nation’s health care system. However, he supported Obama’s attempt to keep his promise to consumers who wanted to retain their current insurance.

“What the president said (Thursday) is he tried to make good on a promise that he made during the campaign which should have been nuanced better than it was,” Sanders said in a telephone interview. “What the president said is if you have health insurance, you like it, you can stay with it. Having said that, I think he has to carry through on what he said.”

Still, Sanders said that many of the policies that people have now are “totally inadequate,” with high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, and that individuals would find better coverage in the plans sold through the marketplaces.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said through a spokesman that the president was on the right track by giving consumers another year to keep their insurance.

“Senator Shaheen thinks giving people whose plans are being canceled a chance to renew their insurance for a year is a step in the right direction and will give consumers more time to transition to new health insurance,” said Shaheen spokesman Shripal Shah. “She also thinks we need to extend the sign up period due to the ongoing problems with the HealthCare.gov website.”

Shaheen had already introduced legislation to give people extra time to enroll for coverage. Introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, the ACA Enrollment Extension Act would give people a minimum of two extra months to sign up for health plans through the insurance marketplaces and give the Health and Human Services secretary the flexibility to further extend enrollment if HealthCare.gov isn’t fully functional by Dec. 1.

“It’s not fair to penalize people for not having health insurance because of a broken website,” Shaheen said in a statement. “People need adequate time to consider their available options and sign up for health insurance and the ongoing technical issues aren’t allowing that.”

Sanders said he supported the idea behind Shaheen’s bill, but was not yet ready to sign onto it.

“Senator Shaheen is doing a very good job in trying to protect people in New Hampshire and in America from the inadequacies that we’re seeing on the health care website,” Sanders said. “It’s too soon for me to say whether I will support this. I understand exactly where she is coming from. Her logic is strong.”

Kuster and fellow U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., both support a GOP bill that would allow consumers to keep their canceled health plans next year without penalty and also let others sign up. The House is scheduled today to vote on the Keep Your Health Plan Act of 2013, which would allow insurance sold on the individual market today to be offered next year and be exempt from certain requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

Welch was more skeptical of the proposal than his colleagues from New Hampshire.

“The bill that’s offered, it addresses one issue — letting people buy the policies that they have,” Welch said. “But then it creates a problem by perpetuating the ability of insurance companies to sell bait-and-switch policies forever. That’s a big problem.”

As far as the technical problems with the online marketplaces, Welch said the government needed to move aggressively to make it functional. If it cannot do so, he said he would support a “flexible response to the deadline” for enrollment.

“We’ve got to give people time so that they have the full time that was promised for them to review the options,” Welch said. “And to the extent that there’s any governmental delay, we can’t impose that burden on Americans.”

Through a spokesman, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed frustration about “the rocky rollout” of the health care exchanges, but said the low enrollment figures should not be taken for lack of interest by consumers.

“Enrollment numbers are low, but even with the website problems, interest in getting insurance through the new exchanges has been quite high, with nearly a million people already signing up and needing only to pick a plan,” said Leahy spokesman David Carle. “The uncertainty and confusion are creating real problems for people, and there need to be ongoing adjustments. The issues in Vermont are not exactly the same as the issues in other states. The steps the President announced today, and the many bills that have been introduced, are on the table for discussion and deserve a close look.”

Shea-Porter said through a spokesman that states such as New Hampshire might have had higher enrollment figures had they opted to design their own marketplace, as Vermont did. Republican lawmakers in Concord had passed legislation last year that prohibited the state from establishing its own marketplace.

“Due to the inexcusable technical problems with healthcare.gov, the first month’s enrollment numbers were expected to be very low,” Shea-Porter spokesman Ben Wakana said in an email. “It’s unfortunate that the New Hampshire Tea Party blocked a state exchange in 2012, because it is clear that most states that decided to develop their own exchanges had a more successful start than states like New Hampshire with federal or partnership exchanges.”

As the Congress considers delaying deadlines for the Affordable Care Act, state Republican leaders in Vermont have been calling on Gov. Peter Shumlin to push back the state’s employer and individual mandate requiring the purchase of health insurance through VermontHealthConnect.gov. He recently extended by three months the time through which individual and small businesses could retain their current coverage.

Still, state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said he wants the employer and individual mandate to be delayed through next year.

“We just don’t believe this is a system that is ready for prime time,” Benning, whose district includes several Bradford-area towns, said Thursday. “A system that was designed to insure the uninsured is now threatening to uninsure the insured.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

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