WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans pressed ahead Wednesday on delaying key components of President Barack Obama's signature health care law, emboldened by the administration's concession that requiring companies to provide coverage for their workers next year may be too complicated.
The House has scheduled votes later Wednesday to delay the law's individual and employer mandates, the 38th time the GOP majority has tried to eliminate, defund or scale back the program since Republicans took control of the House in January 2011.
The votes were a chance to score political points as the legislation is going nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, public unease with the law and the Republican attacks clearly caused consternation at the White House.
Eager to counter the Republican criticism, Obama plans to deliver remarks Thursday focusing on rebates that consumers are already receiving from insurance companies under the health care law.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will draw attention to the 8.5 million consumers who have received an average consumer rebate of about $100. Carney also seized on reports that some states are already anticipating lower premiums under the Affordable Care Act.
"Competition and transparency in the marketplaces, plus the hard effort by those committed to making the law work, are leading to affordable, new and better choices for families," Carney said.
Earlier this month, Republicans seized on the administration's abrupt decision to delay for one year, until after the 2014 elections, the requirement that businesses with 50 or more employees provide health coverage for their workers or pay a penalty.
Republicans insisted that the president couldn't unilaterally decide to enforce only portions of the law. They planned votes on one bill that would essentially codify the administration's plan as well as a second bill that provides a similar grace period for individual Americans.
"If the president believes the employer mandate is too much for the employer community, how about basic fairness for American families and individuals?" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters at a news conference.
Democrats insisted it was all political theater and another attempt by the GOP to undermine the law.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., said Republicans weren't simply trying to delay the requirements. "It is their intention to destroy the Affordable Care Act ... to do away with it, to annihilate it entirely," Crowley said.
He said the "the definition of insanity ... is doing something 38 times and still getting the same results."
Carney said House Republicans have "made it their mission in life" to repeal the law.
The goal of the health care law was to provide coverage to nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance in a massive overhaul of the current system. Just months before enforcement, the Obama administration announced a one-year delay in the employer mandate.
"We have heard concerns about the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively," Treasury Assistant Secretary Mark Mazur said in a blog post. "We have listened to your feedback, and we are taking action."
Republicans said that was fresh evidence that the law is unworkable and should be repealed. The GOP also accused a Democratic president of favoring businesses over average Americans, who will still be required to carry health insurance starting next Jan. 1 or risk fines.
In an example of strange political bedfellows, Republicans highlighted a letter from three unions to congressional Democratic leaders criticizing the health care law and demanding that the administration address problems stemming from the law.
Specifically, the unions — International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and UNITE-HERE — complained that the law's requirements have created an incentive for employers to cut workers' hours to avoid providing health care coverage.
The law created a new definition of full-time workers, those putting in 30 hours or more.
"Time is running out: Congress wrote this law; we voted for you. We have a problem; you need to fix it. The unintended consequences of the ACA (Affordable Care Act) are severe. Perverse incentives are already creating nightmare scenarios," the union leaders wrote.
The House will vote on two bills: one by Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., to implement the president's one-year delay in the employer mandate, and another by Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., to delay the individual mandate. Although Griffin's bill would implement a policy the Obama administration has already announced, it's part of a broader GOP attack on the health care law with the goal of repeal.
Separately, top administration officials testified before House committees on the employer mandate delay and the overall readiness of Obama's coverage expansion for the uninsured.
Treasury Department health policy adviser Mark Iwry told the Ways and Means Committee that the administration's one-year delay of the requirement for larger employers to offer coverage was in keeping with the agency's longstanding legal authority to smooth the implementation of complicated new tax laws.
"On a number of prior occasions across administrations, this authority has been used to postpone the application of new legislation when immediate application would have subjected taxpayers to unreasonable administrative burdens or costs," Iwry said.
He cited a number of previous examples, from small business legislation to a tax on aviation fuel.
At another committee, Oversight and Government Reform, Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner testified on the complex information technology that underlies new health insurance markets being set up through the Affordable Care Act. Starting Oct. 1, people without access to job-based health insurance will be able to apply online for private coverage and learn if they are entitled to new tax credits to help pay their premiums.
To do that they'll have to submit personal information to prove their identity, legal U.S. residence and income — which will all be routed through something called the "federal data services hub." The hub will ping government agencies including Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security to check the information submitted by millions of individual applicants. The answers will enable consumers shopping on their states' insurance markets to learn how much financial assistance they can expect to receive.
Tavenner said the administration is working to safeguard the security of the hub, as well as the entire system. For example, the hub will not be a new storehouse of sensitive personal information but will be used to validate information.
In addition to overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, Tavenner is also responsible for the rollout of the new health care law.
The inspector general's office that monitors the Internal Revenue Service warned of possible problems for consumers submitting applications for health insurance in October.
Alan Duncan, an official in Treasury's inspector general office, said the rush to be ready for open enrollment Oct. 1 may leave some technology not fully tested.
"The lack of adequate testing could result in significant delays and errors in accepting and processing...applications for health insurance coverage," Duncan testified.
Administration officials said they are highly confident of a successful launch.