WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Rep. Patrick Murphy had been a cautious defender of President Barack Obama’s health care law for much of the last year, telling constituents in his swing-voting district that the far-from-perfect measure is critical to helping cover uninsured Americans.
Then the new health care law made its disastrous debut. The federal health care website repeatedly crashed, blocking millions from browsing insurance plans. Questions about its security mounted.
And cancellation notices hit people who buy their own plans, undercutting the president’s vow that those who liked their coverage could keep it.
Now the South Florida lawmaker – one of nine Democrats representing districts Republican Mitt Romney won in 2012 – is distancing himself from the administration and heeding GOP calls to delay key parts of the health care law, illustrating the Democratic Party’s challenge as it fights to keep control of the Senate and retake the House next year.
“It’s a complete embarrassment,” the Democratic freshman said. “There are no excuses for what happened here.”
Nationwide, Democrats are nervous about the implications of defending an already unpopular law in the wake of the botched rollout, particularly in swing-voting districts and states.
Last week, 16 Senate Democrats talked with Obama about fears the problems could hamper their re-election prospects, a day after two gubernatorial elections highlighted the party’s struggles.
Mirroring national polls, half of New Jersey voters and 53 percent of Virginia voters said they oppose the law.
The Democratic nominees in those races won 11 percent and 14 percent of those voters, respectively. Republicans attributed Virginia nominee Ken Cuccinelli’s late surge in his failed bid to his vociferous opposition to the health care law.
Hoping for political gain heading into 2014, the GOP’s top campaign committees are tying Democrats to the law’s messy launch in a series of ads targeting women, who tend to vote Democratic and often make their families’ health decisions.
Murphy and other Democrats anxious about the issue face a test Friday, when the House is scheduled to vote on a bill to extend the life of individual health insurance policies that otherwise face cancellation under the new law on Jan. 1 because they don’t meet minimum coverage standards.
The legislation isn’t likely to become law, but it’s the latest GOP tactic to take advantage of the law’s rocky launch.
Seeking to blunt the fallout, Murphy and other Democrats likely facing tough re-election challenges are pushing legislation to delay the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine until the website is certified as fully operational.
“I am angry that this website is not functioning – and until it is completely fixed, it is simply unfair to threaten people with fines,” Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., a top target for Republicans, said in a statement.
Some of those same Democrats also have called on the Justice Department to investigate the government contractors who built HealthCare.gov. “If the government has purchased faulty or defective services, the taxpayers deserve and should demand their money back,” Democratic lawmakers from Texas, Arizona and Illinois wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder.
In the Senate, 10 Democrats are lobbying for an unspecified extension of the enrollment period. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has introduced a bill that would force insurers to reinstate canceled policies that Obama had vowed that people could keep, saying on the Senate floor: “This is not to undermine the Affordable Care Act. It is to strengthen it and to keep our promise.”
Others, like Murphy, are calling for the firings of government officials overseeing the rollout.
“If I was in charge, I would make sure that some people went ahead and found a new job after this,” he told The Associated Press recently. He also pledged to work with Republicans to change the law, saying “It’s not perfect but it’s not going anywhere. Let’s focus on fixing it.”
The Democrat has sought middle ground since his victory last year in one of the country’s closest — and most costly — races. He was among 22 House Democrats who joined Republicans in voting for a one-year delay of the insurance mandate for individuals. He also has supported measures to repeal both a new fee on insurance companies and a tax on medical devices.
His swing-voting district hugs much of Florida’s Treasure Coast and stretches from the affluent beach towns and gated communities of Palm Beach and Martin counties to the more modest St. Lucie County.
Public frustration with the rollout was palpable recently at the Palm Beach County Medical Society, where more than two dozen sought help signing up for insurance. Some waited nearly two hours to talk with a health care counselor, often described as navigators, after failing to enroll through HealthCare.gov.
Floridians are largely reliant on the federal website because Republican Gov. Rick Scott has opposed the law and the state declined to set up its own online exchange where consumers could shop for insurance. Officials also banned navigators from assisting people at county health departments.
“We in this country, we’re running out of patience,” said Janneth Diaz, 59, as she sat in a waiting room. “Whoever Obama hired, it’s turning into a big mess.”
She hasn’t had insurance since May, when she was laid off from her job. She tried logging onto the federal website. It crashed.
A Democrat, she voted for Obama. But she now says her experience with the health care law will color her vote next year.
“It sounded like a good thing for the country,” she said. “We’ll see.”