Hagan calls for probe of healthcare website as political support drops

rschoof@mcclatchydc.comNovember 12, 2013 

— U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said Tuesday that she wants federal investigators to examine how contractors who were paid to create the go-to site for the new health insurance law botched it.

On the same day, a new poll showed that the North Carolina Democrat’s 2014 re-election race has tightened in recent months and that she has lost her lead over potential Republican challengers.

Disapproval of Hagan has gone from 39 percent to 49 percent since September, according to Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democrat-leaning firm, primarily because of the rollout of the new health care law.

In September, Americans for Prosperity launched a $3 million ad campaign in six states, including North Carolina, criticizing the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, it rolled out a $1.6 million campaign in the state linking Hagan to the law.

Hagan is seeking signatures from her Senate colleagues on a letter that asks for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the new law and its problem-plagued rollout.

She said she wants to see the contracts that went out to 55 companies to build the website, the costs and the penalties for failed performance. She also wants to know why the contract for building the site wasn’t awarded until September 2011, and why it was only open to a limited number of companies.

Hagan’s emerging strategy against Republican attacks on the health care appears to be to find the middle between her party and her constituents, political experts say.

She aims to distance herself from what voters say they don’t like about the law, but highlight its benefits. It’s an appeal both to Democrats and to other conservative and moderate voters, they said, and she needs both.

She can’t completely oppose the law or fully endorse it, said David W. Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University.

“This is her optimal strategy,” he added. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it has a good chance of working.”

Republicans need to gain only six seats in next year’s Senate contests to win control. Democrats must defend more seats in 2014, and Hagan has been viewed among the vulnerable lawmakers – although until recently, most polls had her ahead of her GOP challengers.

Support for law continues

Hagan voted for the health care law, and she told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that she continues to support it. She praised several of its programs, including the requirement that insurers cover pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ plans longer.

“The Affordable Care Act has already made a difference in the delivery of health care,” Hagan said.

But she also said that she found the failure of the online insurance marketplace “unacceptable.”

“I share the frustration of so many people in North Carolina who have been unable to get online and shop for a new health plan,” she said.

Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Hagan could have worked to address those concerns before now, “instead of after the system is already failing.”

“Now, with her political career on the line, Hagan is feeling fake concern for what she knew all along would be inevitable,” Hougesen said.

Fixes need to be made

The controversial law requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine. It also includes subsidies to help those who meet income requirements buy insurance. Other major provisions include banning insurance companies from declining to cover people who have pre-existing conditions, rescinding insurance when people get sick and imposing lifetime caps on coverage. It also allows young people to remain on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Another provision requires insurance policies to meet certain standards, which has resulted in individual policies being canceled for many people who don’t have insurance through their employers, Medicaid or Medicare.

Republicans are attacking Hagan in ads for saying, as Obama did, that people who wanted to keep their health insurance would be able to. Obama has recently apologized that this has not been the case.

Hagan was asked during her news conference why she wasn’t aware earlier that it wouldn’t be possible.

“The way the regulations and the law came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the actual original plans would be canceled,” she responded.

“We knew with a bill this large there would be fixes needed to be made to make it work better.”

The News & Observer reported that 160,000 people in North Carolina have lost their individual coverage plans because the plans didn’t meet the law’s requirements.

“Voters see that as a big number,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Hagan “is trying to play offense but in reality it’s all defense. It’s trying to mitigate voters’ unhappiness,” Duffy said, and it’s not clear an investigation will make voters feel better.

Challengers closing in

In addition to her call for an investigation of the contracts, Hagan also has asked the White House to extend the enrollment period, and she recently co-sponsored a bill by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., that would let people keep their individual insurance plans if they prefer. But insurers already have ended those policies, and it would be difficult to tell them to reinstate the policies, Duffy said.

The PPP survey on Tuesday found that 69 percent of the state’s voters say the rollout of the health care law has been unsuccessful, compared with 25 percent who think it’s working.

“It seems likely that the difficulties with the rollout of Obamacare are helping to make life more difficult for Hagan,” said PPP’s director, Tom Jensen.

The poll now has Hagan in a dead heat with all four of her GOP opponents – Cary doctor Greg Brannon, House Speaker Thom Tills, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and nurse Heather Grant.

J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said the poll numbers now make it necessary for Hagan to show she’s addressing concerns with the law.

“I think even if she has to go against her party’s president, that’s the only way she can really start to try and deflect some of this negativism,” he said.

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