WHEELING - As computer glitches continue to stymie many seeking to obtain insurance under the new national health care law, Sen. Joe Manchin wants to delay penalties against the uninsured until Jan. 1, 2015.
Manchin, D-W.Va., is partnering with Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, to craft legislation that would give Americans additional time to purchase coverage as required by the Affordable Care Act - providing government the opportunity to fix a system fraught with problems and the public a chance to decide what type of coverage is best for them, he said.
The insurance marketplace rollout is, "going to have some problems, and they're going to have to work through that," Manchin said Thursday. "You shouldn't have to pay a fine because you can't log in."
President Barack Obama has acknowledged the website, www.healthcare.gov, wasn't tested well enough before going live Oct. 1, but Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius has assured the public there's plenty of time to sign up in time to comply with the so-called "individual mandate" in the health care law. Administration officials said Wednesday Americans won't be assessed the penalties as long as they obtain suitable coverage by March 31.
The penalties, to be assessed on income tax returns, amount to $95 per person or 1 percent of an individual's income - whichever is greater - and escalate to $325 or 2 percent of income in 2015 and $695 or 2.5 percent of income in 2016 and beyond.
Manchin said delaying the penalties is a matter of fairness. He pointed to the Obama administration's decision to delay enforcing the provision of the law requiring companies with more than 50 workers to offer their employees coverage until the start of 2015.
"Shouldn't the same consideration be given to the individual mandate? That's an honest approach, and that's what we're advocating for," he said.
Manchin said his legislation isn't intended to eliminate the individual mandate - seen by many as the linchpin of the health care law - altogether. And he believes Obama would sign the measure if enough lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support it.
"We've just got to get a good, bipartisan effort. If that happens, I think the president would accept it," Manchin said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Americans "need to give health care reform time to work."
"The individual mandate is an important part of reform. No one has come up with a way to give people who don't have health insurance - or who have lousy health insurance - a fighting chance without it," Rockefeller said. "I've always felt so strongly that every West Virginian should be able to see a doctor or nurse when they need to, and no one should get kicked off their insurance when they get sick. Changing our health care system for the better is not going to be easy - at times it may even be frustrating - but it's absolutely essential for hundreds of thousands of West Virginia families."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he supports delaying the individual mandate, but believes lawmakers should go further.
"Obamacare should be repealed for everyone and replaced with something that works better, but until then I will fight to make sure that this onerous and complex law harms as few Ohioans as possible," Portman said. "President Obama chose to delay the employer mandate of the health care law because it will be a burden on businesses and job creators. With the rollout of Obamacare now an unqualified failure, the individual mandate should be delayed as well."
Meanwhile, Sen. Sherrod Brown acknowledged the issues with the health care rollout, but said the setbacks are temporary.
"The problems with healthcare.gov are unacceptable and need to be fixed immediately. But what matters most is that millions of Ohioans are benefiting from the health law and now have greater access to affordable, quality insurance," Brown, D-Ohio, said.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, excoriated contractors responsible for building the website during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"Top administration officials and contractors appeared before this committee on Sept. 10, looked us in the eye and assured us repeatedly that everything was on track," he said. "But after the website was launched and numerous problems surfaced, the finger-pointing began and no one is taking responsibility. The American people deserve an apology for the disastrous rollout that has wasted taxpayer dollars."