Begich joins colleagues, seeks longer enrollment

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said trying to access the online health insurance marketplace during the first week of its rollout was a “disaster” but he’s seen improvements over the last few days.

Begich on Thursday joined with several Democratic colleagues in seeking a longer open enrollment period for individuals to buy health insurance under the new federal health care law.

Oct. 1 marked the launch of the online marketplace, which is intended to allow individuals to browse their options for private insurance. Alaska is among the states that allowed the federal government to set up the exchange for its residents. The website has been plagued, however, by glitches.

Begich said he first went on the website at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 1 and has visited regularly since.

The senators, in their letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said they have become “discouraged and frustrated with the problems and interactions” stemming from the site, and that their constituents are frustrated, too. They said they fear “the longer the website is not functional opportunities for people to log on, learn about their insurance choices, and enroll will be lost.”

The senators asked Sebelius to consider extending that period but didn’t say for how long. They say individuals should not be penalized for lack of coverage if they can’t buy insurance due to technical problems.

They also offered praise for the health care law, saying it has the potential to improve quality of care and allow for millions of American to buy “quality, affordable” insurance.

The letter was signed by Begich and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Dianne Feinstein of California, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

Begich told The Associated Press he doesn’t believe there should be a delay of, say, a year. Rather, he said any extension it should match however long it takes for the website to be functioning at a level he would consider appropriate. He said if that’s a month, open enrollment should be extended a month.

He also said the date for which penalties kick in should align with the final open enrollment deadline.

Under the law, nearly all Americans are required carry health insurance starting next year or face fines. The current open enrollment period runs through March, but people will face a penalty if they postpone buying coverage beyond mid-February.

Begich said the law isn’t perfect and he’s suggested ways to make it better. But he said the problems haven’t shaken his support of the law and the “need to fix this health care system that is broken.”

“People who want health care really want health care,” he said. Despite the website issues, he said he hasn’t heard anyone say they’ll just pay the fine and not worry about enrolling.

Begich said someone should be held accountable, but he criticized what he called “show-and-tell” hearings in Congress.

“Because what they’re doing, I know what their plan is: have these oversight hearings in the middle of the process of trying to fix all this to disrupt it more,” he said.

Right now, the attitude should be “all hands on deck,” he said.

“Get this website up and running, make sure the access is happening and then after all this … people have to be held accountable,” Begich said.

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