Franken open to delaying health care mandate if website problems persist

WASHINGTON - DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken says he's open to a brief delay of the individual mandate that's at the heart of the Affordable Care Act if the federal government's health insurance marketplace isn't fixed by the Obama Administration's self-imposed Dec. 1 deadline.

"I think then we have to consider extending the deadline for the mandate, but let's hope that doesn't happen," said Franken when asked what happens if most of the problems with the site aren't under control by then.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans will be required to be covered by health insurance by March 31st, 2014 or they will be liable to pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of their income. If the site continues to have difficulty enrolling Americans, Franken said the mandate and the open enrollment period should be extended, "maybe by a month," though he added that such an outcome would not be "optimal at all."

It's not clear whether such a move would require congressional approval, and it's also not clear how states that have their own healthcare exchanges, including Minnesota, would be affected by such a delay. MNsure, the state's health care exchange, has not had the same level of technical difficulties as the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, that covers the 36 states that chose not to set up their own web sites.

The troubles with the law's rollout have already led some Minnesota Democrats to distance themselves from the law. Last week, U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz, who all represent potentially Republican-leaning districts, voted for a GOP bill that would halt the cancellation of health insurance plans that don't comply with the broader coverage requirements of the ACA.

As many as 140,000 Minnesotans have received notices from their insurance companies that their policies would be affected as a result. The Obama Administration announced last week a "fix" that would let state insurance commissioners approve those plans for one more year though Minnesota declined to participate. Franken said he is working to make sure that anyone whose coverage is being lost can find an acceptable replacement via MNsure.

This issue has become a political headache for Democrats like Franken who are up for re-election in 2014.  Franken has come under criticism from Republicans for the law's poor rollout.

"Franken's only plan [for fixing the web site] is to hope someone else fixes the problem," said GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden in a press release last week.

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