Health care glitches put twist on local congressional races

News-DemocratDecember 3, 2013 

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, has spent his first 11 months in office voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

But with his re-election at stake next year, Enyart must now cross a narrow tightrope in the months ahead.

The freshman congressman must defend his votes on the health care reform law to voters angry about soaring insurance premiums and a glitch-plagued website that's made it difficult to buy insurance before a Dec. 23 deadline for plans that take effect next month.

And Republican congressmen John Shimkus of Collinsville and Rodney Davis of Taylorville said the GOP will make sure voters are reminded often about the problems with the law.

After his announcement last week that he was running for re-election, Enyart declined to predict if problems with the Healthcare.gov website will act as a drag on his campaign.

"You know, I've given up being a political pundit," he said. "I think that the people in Southern Illinois will look at my votes. I supported the president when he was right, I voted the other way when we needed to vote the other way. So I think people will look at the votes I've taken and I think they'll look at what I'm working on for Southern Illinois."

Criticism of the Affordable Care Act is being blamed for a sharp turnaround nationwide among voters on a generic ballot on which respondents were asked to choose between a Democrat or Republican in their congressional districts without naming the candidates, according to a recent CNN/ORC International poll.

A month ago Democrats held a 50 to 42 percent edge over Republicans on the generic ballot, principally because of public anger over the GOP role in the 16-day partial government shutdown in October.

But as of two weeks ago, Republicans held a 49 to 47 percent advantage because of the woes afflicting the health care law's rollout, according to the poll.

Even so, Democratic leaders are saying the Affordable Care Act will actually help them in 2014 House races.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority Leader, asserted at a forum that the rollout won't "hurt us in 2014," and that "we're proud" of the law. And Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN the health care law would serve as "an advantage" to her party's candidates in 2014.

Davis, whose 13th House District covers 14 central Illinois counties, including a big chunk of Madison County, has voted repeatedly to kill off, de-fund and delay the Affordable Care Act.

In view of the problems that have wracked the health care law's rollout, Davis still wants its implementation to be repealed or replaced with something better.

Nonetheless, Davis said he doubted the problems surrounding the Affordable Care Act will by themselves affect his re-election race against a Democratic opponent next year.

"There's going to be so many issues that we talk about during the primary and the general (election), any one issue isn't going to determine whether or not I'm going to be re-elected or not," Davis said.

Still, Davis won't let the Obama White House off the hook for the debacle surrounding the Healthcare.gov website.

The Health and Human Services officials charged with making the website work have testified the total contract value for work on the website carried an upper limit of $292 million, which is akin to the limit on a credit card.

Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Service's chief, has said about $174 million has been spent so far on preparing, supporting and upgrading the troubled Healthcare.gov website, the Washington Post reported last week.

Davis remains underwhelmed.

"These are real dollars that going out for a dysfunctional site that still breaks down even when Kathleen Sebelius uses it," Davis said. "This is where the (Obama) administration has been an abysmal failure, trying to protect the taxpayers."

Obama had pledged to fix the website by this past Saturday and make its services available to the vast majority of the estimated seven million Americans who must buy private health insurance on their own.

As of Sunday the White House declared the website had been fixed and that most HealthCare.gov visitors would be able to pick out and buy health insurance.

News media nationwide reported some problems with the site, including long wait times, but also reported big improvements over the glitches that nearly shut it down in October.

And as of Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that more than 1 million people had visited the revamped website.

Still, the Affordable Care Act continues to face rough sailing. Obama has already announced he is delaying by one year the launch of its online small-business exchange.

Firms with fewer than 50 workers were set to begin in November buying coverage through the Small Business Health Options Program (S.H.O.P.), an online ObamaCare exchange. The one-year delay means small businesses must search for coverage through an agent or broker.

Shimkus, the Collinsville Republican, has vigorously opposed the Affordable Care Act, voting repeatedly with Davis to repeal, delay and de-fund the law.

Shimkus noted that many Democratic members of the House are unhappy with Obama for stating that people happy with their individual plans could keep them, when it turned out that wasn't true.

The Democratic lawmakers who repeated those White House claims "will be held accountable" by the voters," Shimkus said, noting that House Democrats are "not happy about the position they've been placed in right now."

But Shimkus, a veteran congressman who represents the 15th House District, said a lot can change between now and the November 2014 elections.

"A month ago people were saying, 'Can Republicans hold the House?'" Shimkus said. "And now the question is, 'Can any Democrats win re-election with Obamacare hanging over their heads?' And months from now that whole debate can change."

Enyart, the 12th District congressman from Belleville, has adopted the same mindset.

"There are always going to be problems, there are always going to be crises," Enyart said. "Two months ago it was Syria. Three months ago it was Benghazi. There'll be 10 more crises between now and the election and I think what we have to keep focused on is exactly what I've laid out here today. It's jobs and the development of the economy so that our kids can have good jobs and good educations and work hard for Southern Illinois."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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