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Senate Dems Fear Lingering 'Crisis of Confidence' in Health Care Law

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who was an ardent supporter of the president's health care plan, warned today that the botched rollout of Obama health care exchanges has led to a "crisis of confidence."

"I believe that there's been a crisis of confidence created in the dysfunctional nature of the website, the canceling of policies and sticker shock from some people," Mikulski, D-Md., said during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing. "What I worry about is that there's such a crisis of confidence, people won't enroll and the very people we need to enroll, particularly our young people, to make this whole system work won't happen."

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Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services chief Marilyn Tavenner, who was testifying at the Senate HELP hearing, assured Mikulski that there is a plan to target young people and uninsured to make sure they partake in enrollment. But the senator remained skeptical.

"I'm going to be blunt. I think it's very confusing about where you go," Mikulski said. "People really don't know. They really really don't know."

Frustration has mounted among Democrats as the HealthCare.gov site has struggled since it launched Oct. 1. Tavenner, who testified last week on Capitol Hill, told the Senate committee that Healthcare.gov is improving and experiencing "significant progress" in its performance.

"I want to assure you that HealthCare.gov will be fixed quickly, and we are working literally around the clock to make that happen," Tavenner said. "We have made significant progress in improving the performance and functionality of the website, and we expect the user experience to continue to improve with each passing week."

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Tavenner said the troubled HealthCare.gov site is now able to process 17,000 registrants each hour and that performance and responsiveness issues have been resolved along with problems establishing an email account with the system. The CMS administrator said that security testing of the site is ongoing and that the agency is taking "additional steps" to ensure individual's applications are secure.

"Any system that is this large is inherently risky," Tavenner said. "Security testing never ends, it will never end and it will not for this system or for any other large system."

Tavenner, who said the agency hoped to enroll 800,000 people before the end of November, said enrollment figures will be provided for the first time "next week," but Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., argued that's not soon enough.

"Why don't you release it daily?" Alexander, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked. "If we can know how many hamburgers and cars and records have been sold every day, why can't we know how many people are enrolling in Obamacare each day?"

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, cited data that found Alaska only enrolled three consumers in its exchange between Oct. 1 and Oct. 29. Tavenner said the agency is working to resolve the issue that she said was specific to the state of the Alaska.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who has called for extending the open enrollment period because of the website snafus, asked Tavenner whether the administration plans to delay the penalties for those who have not signed up if Healthcare.gov is not fully functioning by the end of November.

"There are no plans to delay the individual mandate," Tavenner said. "The site will be working."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will provide a status report on HealthCare.gov in a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

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