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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “The Online Federal Health Insurance Marketplace: Enrollment Challenges and the Path Forward”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“About five years ago, Richard Streeter, a 47-year-old truck driver from Eugene, Oregon, was frustrated and worried.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described this weekend, Mr. Streeter couldn’t find affordable insurance in the individual market—back in the bad old days, no insurance company would cover him.  So he did what people locked out of the market do—he went without care.

“Well, after months of ignoring pain, Mr. Streeter finally went in for a colonoscopy—the only way he could get it was from a doctor who agreed to take half of the payment later, whenever Richard could afford it.  After driving 100 miles to get the results, he found out he has advanced colon cancer. 

“His doctor said this—‘it was heartbreaking to see the pain on his face.  It got me very angry with people who insist that Obamacare is a train wreck, when the real train wreck is what people are experiencing every day because they can’t afford care.’

“Mr. Streeter is the second patient the doctor has seen this year who put off getting a test because of lack of health insurance, and now has advanced colon cancer.

“He has a long, tough road ahead of him.  But at least now he won’t have to worry about how he’ll pay for his treatment—he signed up for health insurance starting January 1—which now can’t deny him coverage because of his health condition.

“We passed the Affordable Care Act so that this would never happen to another family. Right now, millions of Americans are shopping on new Health Insurance Marketplaces for coverage that starts next year. 700,000 people have filed applications. Why this surge in interest?  For the first time in history, their health – whether or not they have a chronic illness, or an allergy, or had a back operation ten years ago – will not prevent them from getting insurance.

“These reforms will finally deliver on a long overdue promise to all Americans: If you work hard, play by the rules, and pay your fair share, you will never stay awake at night worried that you can’t afford to see a doctor or pay your medical bills. It’s a promise I wish we could have kept sooner for Mr. Streeter.

“As everyone knows, the rollout of the federal Health Insurance Marketplace has been bumpy, to put it mildly. Consumers have run into roadblocks; the site has been functional one day, and unresponsive the next. Americans who have been waiting for years for this moment deserve better.

“The President, Secretary Sebelius, and our witness today have taken full responsibility for the technical flaws in the website, and have said that no resource will be spared to fix the problem quickly. I look forward to hearing an update on those efforts.

“I share my Republican colleagues’ concern about the website’s technical flaws and the bumpy rollout, and I look forward to a discussion about how we can move forward.  But I want to be very clear—we’re here for a constructive discussion, not a game of gotcha. I am as upset as anyone with the difficulties that individuals who want to apply for coverage on the federal marketplace have experienced, and I want to learn today how those problems will be fixed.

“But at the same time, those who have spent the last three years doing nothing but trying to tear this law down have surrendered their right to express indignation that it’s not working flawlessly.  Senate Republicans have voted 32 times to repeal or defund the law.  They’ve denied implementation funds at every turn, tried to stop navigators from spreading the word, and sent letters to the NFL warning them against reaching out to fans.

“Republican Governors and legislatures—who in most cases ran on a platform of strong States’ rights and less federal government—handed over the responsibility of running the marketplace to the federal government. 

“Before we get into the details, I think everyone should take a deep breath.  This is, after all, a website – it’s a machine that will be fixed.  Americans have until the end of March next year to sign up.  And as the President has said, the promise of the Affordable Care Act is far more than a website:

  • It’s benefits to the 105 million Americans who have been protected against lifetime limits since 2010;
  • It’s the more than 3 million young people that can stay on their parents’ policies;
  • It’s 7 million seniors who have saved $8 billion in discounts on prescription drugs;
  • It’s the 71 million people on private insurance that have used free preventive services,
  • And it’s the 129 million non-elderly Americans with preexisting conditions who can no longer be denied or discriminated against by health insurance companies.

“Above all, health reform is the promise of the health and financial security that insurance coverage brings. Iowa’s marketplace premiums are among the ten lowest nationwide. A family of four making $50,000 will be able to get bronze-level coverage for $103 a month, and a 27-year-old making $25,000 will be able to get a plan for less than $100 a month.  That’s real choice, and real affordability. In my colleague’s state of Tennessee, a family of four making $50,000 will be able to get that coverage for $128 a month.

“So let’s get the website fixed as fast as possible, so that every American can shop easily and enroll smoothly. 

“Slowly but surely, Americans who have waited years to get covered are enrolling in health insurance for the first time. We owe them our very best efforts to move the ball forward.”