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Republican Ayotte seeks 'time out' on Obamacare as anxieties grow

U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) addresses the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 28, 2012. REUTE
U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) addresses the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 28, 2012. REUTE

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte wants to press "pause" on rolling out the U.S. healthcare reform law as anxiety grows about troubles with the federal website for buying insurance and possibly low numbers of people signing up for coverage.

"I'm calling on the president now to say, 'Let's have a time-out on this.' Mr. President, you call a time-out on this," said Ayotte in an appearance on CNN on Sunday. "Convene a group of bipartisan leaders to address healthcare concerns in this country because this is not working."

Ayotte said the pause would not be a replay of an October standoff over fiscal issues, when an impasse between Democrats and Republicans resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government as Republicans sought to defund the healthcare law, known as Obamacare.

"Why not convene a group to see how we can work together, on issues like the 29-hour workweek ... people being denied their current plans, issues like rising healthcare costs?" said Ayotte. "The administration, in the way this is being rolled out, is a mess."

On Wednesday Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will face angry Republicans such as Ayotte when she testifies before the Senate Finance Committee about the online federal insurance exchange.

The site, where individuals from 36 states can purchase health insurance, is a key component of the law passed more than three years ago. Some states operate their own exchanges.

Within hours of the state and federal exchanges going live on October 1, the federal site hit snags. The problems have persisted. From late Saturday through early Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services took the site offline for "extended maintenance." {ID:nL1N0IN0AX]

As members of Obama's administration rushed to apologize and promise improvements by the end of November, new complaints have emerged that there are no conclusive measures of how many people used the site and that insurance companies have canceled policies, forcing people into the exchanges.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that in 2010 administration aides such as healthcare adviser Zeke Emanuel and Larry Summers, then director of the National Economic Council, warned no one was "up to the task" of constructing the exchanges and carrying out the law. Fear of Republican opposition caused agencies to slow down or keep secret their on-the-ground work, according to the newspaper.

Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer said enrollment was likely low in October, citing the small percentage of people who signed up for health insurance in Massachusetts during the first month of that state's reform plan, which was used as a model for Obamacare.

"I can promise you that the first enrollment numbers, which (will be) released later this month, are not going to be what we want them to be. There's no question about that," Pfeiffer told "This Week" on ABC on Sunday.

ENROLLMENT NUMBERS

Administration papers recently released by a congressional committee showed that only 248 people were able to enroll in the first two days of the website's operation. The government said it expects about 7 million people to enroll for individual insurance in 2014.

Pfeiffer also said he did not recall a fight within the administration about Obama's promise that people who liked their health insurance plans could keep them - a pledge now helping stoke anger about the spate of policy cancellations. The Wall Street Journal reported some White House officials questioned the breadth of his promise.

"Look, I can't go back in time on this. And like I said, I don't recall this debate the Wall Street Journal talks about in any way, shape or form," Pfeiffer said.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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