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Government shutdown cuts half of HHS staff as exchanges open

By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: October 1, 2013 - 6:45 am ET

(Updated at 6:50 a.m. ET Oct. 1.)

Whatever HHS officials envisioned for the first day of open enrollment on the health insurance exchanges, they surely didn't expect to face it with more than half of the department's employees furloughed.

But that scenario began to play out as the complex launch coincided with the nation's first government shutdown in 17 years after Republicans refused to pass a temporary spending measure without also eliminating or delaying core provisions of the 2010 healthcare law.

“Shutdown or no shutdown, we're ready to go start enrolling people tomorrow,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told healthcare reporters at HHS headquarters on Monday. Individuals can shop for coverage in the exchanges at starting at 8 a.m. ET Tuesday. The secretary added that HHS also plans to “turn up the volume” on its educational efforts in the next six months through television ads, traditional and social media, and in-person conversations.

The stalemate crossed midnight into the the new federal fiscal year after the House and Senate traded a series of measures to temporarily fund the government. The Senate voted Monday afternoon to strip a House-passed version of an attempt to delay the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for a year and repeal the law's 2.3% medical device tax.

With hours to go before a shutdown, the Senate rejected another House measure that would delay the law's individual mandate for a year and eliminate health insurance subsidies for members of Congress, their staff and political appointees. Early Tuesday morning, House members voted to send back to the Senate the House-passed spending bill along with a request for a conference committee so the two chambers could work out their differences.

"The House has made its position known very clearly," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a brief press conference in the Capitol. "We believe that we should fund the government and we think there ought to be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare. The Senate has continued to reject our offers, but under the Constitution there is a way to resolve this process," he continued, "and that is to go to conference and talk through your differences."

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it clear that he will make a move to table the latest House measure when the Senate reconvenes at 9:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, effectively making it dead on arrival in the upper chamber. House members will return at 10 a.m.

“Unfortunately, right now House Republicans continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands like limiting a woman's access to contraception or delaying the Affordable Care Act, all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party,” the president said in a statement Monday.

HHS said the shutdown would force the department to furlough 40,512 employees, or about 52% of its workforce, the department announced in its contingency plan (PDF). Nevertheless, the department's top leader said it would not affect the launch of open enrollment on the ACA's health insurance exchanges.

On Monday, senior HHS officials gave a demonstration of what consumers will see when they visit to sign up for coverage tomorrow and in the months ahead. The online application will include what one official called a “visual milestone” so users can see how much they've completed in the process at any given time and what they have left until their application is completed.

In her remarks, Sebelius emphasized that consumers should never give their personal health information to anybody because it's not required in the online application process. “So if anybody asks for your personal health information,” Sebelius said, “A: Don't give it, and secondly, turn them in for fraud because it's really not part of what people need to do.”

HHS officials dismissed the suggestion that there doesn't appear to be a large number of hospitals designated as certified application counselors to help people learn about the exchanges and enroll. According to one official, thousands of people have applied to become application counselors and HHS has seen hospitals across the country that want to be actively engaged in helping people in their communities get coverage.

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond


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