Can Obamacare be fixed? Six senators offer a plan, with an eye to the fall

A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, N.H., in this Oct. 27, 2012, file photo. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Five centrist Democratic senators--three of whom are up for reelection this year--and one independent are unveiling a package of proposals Thursday aimed at fixing some of the least popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Democratic Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.)  and Mark Warner (Va.), along with independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), have assembled a collection of past proposals, as well as some new ones, which soften the law's impact on both small businesses and individuals.

Among the many measures are ones that would add a cheaper level of plans to the program's offerings; provide additional funding and opportunities to establish insurance co-ops; allow coverage plans to be offered regionally and across state lines; streamline reporting requirements for employers; making providing coverage optional for businesses with up to 100 employees; provide additional tax credits for small businesses; prevent family members working at same company from having their hours or pay reduced because of the employer mandate; make it easier people to enroll through web brokers and directly with insurers as well as through HealthCare.gov; and enhance brokers' and insurance agents' ability to enroll consumers.

In an interview Wednesday, Begich said he recognizes it may be hard to pass any of the bills this year but there was still a chance some could make it into law. "It’s a tough road, but it’s not a closed road," he said. "In Alaska sometimes our roads are rough, but they’re not closed. They’re still passable."

All three lawmakers facing reelection in the fall -- Begich, Landrieu and Warner -- voted for the law, and have navigated a fine line of pushing for changes without disavowing it altogether.

Landrieu--who. like several of her Democratic colleagues, has proposed multiple changes in the law already--said in a statement she has heard both praise for and complaints about the law back home.

“I hear stories every day from individuals, families, and small businesses in Louisiana about how the Affordable Care Act is actually working to provide for first time quality and affordable choices in the health insurance marketplace," Landrieu said. "I hope some, if not all of these, suggestions will gain support from Republicans and Democrats to become law.”

Warner described the proposals as "targeted, common-sense improvements to keep what works and improve what could work better for Virginia families and employers.”

It remains unclear if voters will be able to absorb the nuanced message, given the slew of negative ads airing in their home states. But Begich said he was optimistic his constituents would be more focused on the idea of improving the law once open enrollment ends March 31.

"Once we’re past that, people will naturally shift to the next stage, because then they have health care," he said, adding that he had already sensed a change in Alaskans' attitudes during his recent town hall meetings. "Some may not like it but they accept it and they want it to work better."

And regardless of the messaging, Begich said, he did not think the controversial law would determine his fate in the fall. "When it’s all said and done, it will become a neutral" factor, he said. "Alaskans are not necessarily one-issue voters."

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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