Postgame on two weeks of health hearings

The political controversy over healthcare.gov and the Obama health law's implementation shows no sign of ending as a second week of hearings in Congress ended with both parties complaining about the web site and the Obama Administration still scrambling to fix dozens of problems.

Now for some postgame thoughts:

Republicans have expanded the playing field

As they did last week in a pair of House hearings, Republicans were able to use two Senate hearings this week to make this issue about more than just the troubles of healthcare.gov. GOP Senators focused mainly on the 'if you like it, you can keep it' pledge by President Obama, but also worked in topics like health data security, possible security issues involving health navigators, rising insurance rates in rural areas, questions about contracts awarded on healthcare.gov, why heads aren't rolling for the botched web site and why did administration officials refuse to answer repeated questions about whether the site would be ready on October 1.

As the White House said a few weeks ago, the health law is about more than a web site - and for Republicans - that seems even more true after this second week of hearings.

Democrats struggle with, 'if you like it, you can keep it

So far, Democrats and the White House have tried a series of different tactics to deal with the public collapse of what had been a very straightforward pledge by President Obama: if you like your health care plan, you can keep it under the Obama health law.

The first effort was to blame insurance companies, but that didn't quell the furor in GOP ranks. The President on Monday tried to add a caveat that wasn't there before, but that only galvanized the White House Press Corps.

In two hearings this week, the new tack was to say week has been to say that people aren't losing their insurance, they are just being given the chance to upgrade to a better policy.

"The so-called cancelation," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), "they're going into a policy that is going to give them protections."

"If you like it, you can keep it" jumps to Capitol Hill

Republicans were chuckling all the way to the Senate floor on Tuesday after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) showed that a web page on the White House web site - with a web address that included "keepit" - talked about how nothing in the health law "forces anyone to change the insurance they have. Period."

There were echoes of that from a recent letter sent to a constituent by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, responding to a complaint about why that person's health insurance plan was being canceled.

"So, let's be clear," the letter from the Florida Democrat dated October 18 states, "if you have health insurance now, you can keep it."

That certainly seems at odds with what Nelson, other Democrats and the White House are saying just a few weeks later.

How low will the enrollment numbers be?

The Medicare chief and the HHS Secretary repeatedly refused to turn over any enrollment numbers in their two weeks of testimony - but comments late in the last hearing on Wednesday left some wondering just how big - or small - the numbers will be on those who have officially signed up for health insurance coverage.

"I can tell you our early enrollment numbers are going to very low," said Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who also volunteered that the original HHS estimate was for 1 million enrollments by the end of December.

No date has been set for the release of the enrollment numbers. Conspiracy theorists (and a lot of reporters) might guess that it will be late on Friday, November 15.

Democrats are clearly feeling the heat

While no one seems to be running away from the Obama health law in the Congress on the Democratic side, there are clearly cracks in the unified front that had been present for so long on those reforms.

16 Democratic Senators - most of whom are up for re-election in 2014 - went to meet with President Obama on Wednesday at the White House, with several making clear in public after the meeting that they had used the meeting to demand action on the web site and the implementation of the health law.

"I shared the concerns of Coloradans directly with the president," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO).

"It’s absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can’t deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK).

The Bottom Line

This is really pretty simple - fix the web site and that problem goes away. But fixing the furor over lost insurance policies and higher premiums won't be so easy.

That most likely guarantees that this story will keep percolating in the weeks ahead, as Republicans subpoena more documents in search of internal revelations about how the health law is (or is not) being implemented.

Next week the House will vote on a bill that would codify the President's, "if you like it, you can keep it" line.

That will certainly stir the pudding well into November on the troubles of the health law.