WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s decision to delay enforcing a pillar of the health care law, the mandate that larger employers provide insurance benefits, raised new questions Wednesday about the government’s preparedness to carry out the landmark law and emboldened congressional Republicans to open an investigation into the postponement.
Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded documents and other information from the Treasury secretary and the secretary of health and human services about the decision announced Tuesday to put off for a year, until 2015, the law’s reporting requirements and penalties. Some Republicans charged that the White House was trying to help Democrats by postponing the changes until after the 2014 midterm elections, but others saw no advantage for Democrats either way.
“Despite delays and missed deadlines, administration officials had repeatedly testified before Congress that they were still on schedule to implement the law,” said US Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“It’s clear we have no idea the full scope of delays and disarray that may be coming,” he added. “The American public deserves answers.”
While business leaders and political analysts struggled to assess the practical consequences of the surprise decision, Democrats and some nonpartisan health policy experts were quick to emphasize that about 96 percent of employers with more than 50 workers, who are covered by the mandate, already provide insurance. They argued that the issue was simply about delaying requirements for businesses to report on their coverage policies, as well as penalties for any noncompliance. Industry groups — especially those representing restaurant owners and retailers — had complained that the provisions were too burdensome and uncertain.
“It is evident from this announcement and many previous announcements that our top priority here is making sure this policy gets implemented correctly, in a way that expands coverage and reduces costs for families and business owners all across the country,” said Josh Earnest, the deputy White House press secretary.
After returning from Africa late Tuesday, and with Egypt in turmoil, President Obama did not address the latest development for his signature domestic policy achievement, nor did senior advisers brief reporters. Certainly the action confirmed Obama’s prediction last month, at an event in California lauding that state’s progress in carrying out the law, that “when you’re implementing a program this large, there will be some glitches.”
However limited the postponement was technically, it was sure to ripple out as a matter of both policy and politics. The delay also raised questions about whether new federal and state insurance exchanges, or the computer systems crucial to their operation, would be ready on time.
The federal government is creating a data network to help verify the income and citizenship of individuals buying policies in the marketplaces, which are to start enrolling people Oct. 1, to determine if the buyers qualify for subsidies. Through the network, each state exchange is supposed to be able to swap data with the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, and the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, among other agencies.
People with knowledge of the administration’s work to put the law into full effect said the postponement was in part a result of delays by the IRS and the Treasury Department in finishing proposed rules and regulations for businesses.
Catherine E. Livingston, who was the health care counsel at the IRS until February, said the delay was “a recognition of practical realities.” Employers and insurers are supposed to inform the agency of the people they cover. But without the final rules, employers and insurers could not program their computers to comply, said Livingston, a lawyer at Jones Day, a Washington firm.
That uncertainty, in turn, fueled a campaign by employers lobbying for a delay. Business groups Wednesday continued to praise the administration for the postponement, which mainly provided regulatory relief to businesses that already insure their employees. With the threat of penalties also delayed, larger businesses that do not cover their workers will be under no pressure to do so before 2015.
“With this temporary reprieve from a complex compliance regime, US companies will have additional time to find workable solutions to these challenges while continuing to provide employees and their families with certainty and peace of mind about their employer-provided health insurance coverage,” said Gary W. Loveman, the chairman of Caesars Entertainment Corp. and the leader of a health committee of the Business Roundtable.