Sen. Hagan wants probe of health law website as her political support drops

Renee Schoof

Sen. Kay Hagan said Tuesday that she wants federal investigators to examine how contractors who were paid to create the go-to site for the new health insurance law botched it.

It was the same day that a new poll showed that the North Carolina Democrat’s 2014 re-election race has tightened in recent months and that she’s lost her lead over potential Republican challengers.

Disapproval of Hagan has gone from 39 percent to 49 percent since September, according to Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democrat-leaning firm, and the primary reason was the rollout of Obamacare.

Hagan is seeking signatures from her Senate colleagues on a letter that asks for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the new law and its problem-plagued rollout.

She said that she wants to see the contracts that went out to 55 companies to build the website, the costs and the penalties for failed performance. She also wants to know why the contract for building the site wasn’t awarded until September 2011, and why it was only open to a limited number of companies.

Her emerging strategy against Republican attacks on Obamacare is to find the middle ground between her party and her constituents, political experts said. She aims to distance herself from what voters say they don’t like about the health law, but highlight its benefits. It’s an appeal both to Democrats and other conservative and moderate voters, they said, and she needs both.

So she can’t completely oppose the law or fully endorse it, said David W. Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University.

“The third alternative, something that a lot of politicians would normally try to pursue, is to try to have your cake and eat it too – to be as supportive of the Affordable Care Act as it’s feasible to be, but still distinguish yourself from being an unquestioning supporter in the eyes of your constituents by doing things like calling for an investigation,” Rohde said.

“This is her optimal strategy,” he added. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it has a good chance of working.”

Republicans need to gain only six seats in next year’s Senate contests to win control. Democrats must defend more seats in 2014 and Hagan has been viewed among the vulnerable lawmakers.

She voted for the health care law, and told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that she continues to support it and praised several of its programs, including the requirement that insurers cover pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ plans longer.

“The Affordable Care Act has already made a difference in the delivery of health care,” Hagan said.

But she also said that she found the failure of the online insurance marketplace “unacceptable.”

“I share the frustration of so many people in North Carolina who have been unable to get online and shop for a new health plan,” she said.

Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Hagan could have worked to address those concerns before now, “instead of after the system is already failing.”

“Now with her political career on the line, Hagan is feeling fake concern for what she knew all along would be inevitable,” Hougesen alleged.

Republicans are attacking Hagan in ads for saying, as Obama did – and for what he has recently apologized for – that people who wanted to keep their health insurance would be able to.

The early attack ads and the unpopular rollout of the Affordable Care Act drove down Hagan's support, according to Public Policy Polling. On Oct. 28, Americans for Prosperity launched a $1.6 million ad campaign tying her to the new health care law. That followed the group's $3 million ad campaign in six states, including North Carolina, in September that criticized the new law but did not target individual senators.

Hagan was asked during her news conference why she didn’t seem to be aware earlier that this wouldn’t be possible in some cases.

“The way the regulations and the law came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the actual original plans would be canceled,” she said. “We knew with a bill this large there would be fixes needed to be made to make it work better.”

News reports have indicated that 160,000 people in North Carolina have lost their individual coverage plans because they didn’t meet the law’s requirements.

“Voters see that as a big number,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Hagan “is trying to play offense but in reality it’s all defense. It’s trying to mitigate voters’ unhappiness,” Duffy said, and it’s not clear an investigation will make voters feel better.

Besides her calls for an investigation of the contracts, Hagan also has asked the White House to extend the enrollment period, and she recently co-sponsored a bill by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., that would let people keep individual insurance plans if they prefer. But insurers already have ended those policies, and it would be tough to tell them to reinstate them, Duffy said.

The PPP survey found that 69 percent of the state’s voters say the rollout of the health care law has been unsuccessful, compared to 25 percent who think it’s working.

J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., said the poll numbers now make it necessary for Hagan to show she’s addressing concerns with the law.

“I think even if she has to go against her party’s president,” he said, “that’s the only way she can really start to try and deflect some of this negativism.”

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau