WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House voted overwhelmingly Friday to bolt new security requirements onto President Barack Obama’s health care law, with 67 Democrats breaking ranks to join with the GOP. It was the first skirmish of what is certain to be a long and contentious election-year fight.
The vote was 291-122 with Republicans relentlessly focusing on “Obamacare,” convinced that Americans’ unease with the troubled law will translate into significant election gains in November. Dozens of Democrats, nervous about their re-election chances or their campaigns for other offices, voted for the GOP bill.
“Americans have the right to know if the president’s health care law has put their personal information at risk, and today’s bipartisan vote reflects that concern,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Among the Democrats joining the Republicans was Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of his party’s campaign committee dedicated to electing Democrats.
“I voted for this bill because I want to make sure confidential information is protected. That’s just common sense,” Israel said in a statement. “This is an added consumer safeguard on top of the many consumer protections in the law that already exist.”
The bill would require the secretary of health and human services to notify an individual within two business days of any security breach involving personal data provided to the government through the health care website HealthCare.gov.
The administration opposed the measure as an unnecessary and costly burden, insisting that the government already has imposed stringent standards and Americans will be notified if personal data has been compromised. Several Democrats said the measure was a GOP message bill designed to scare people away from enrolling in coverage.
The bill stands no chance for final approval in the Democratic-led Senate.
Elsewhere on Friday:
— The administration said it was parting ways with the lead outside contractor for the sign-up website, which had to be rebuilt after its disastrous launch last fall.
— Obama lunched at a Washington restaurant with five young people to call attention to a need for young Americans to enrol for insurance through the law. The administration needs millions of Americans, but especially young, healthier people, to enrol to keep prices low for everyone.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans said their legislation on the overhaul addressed potential security breaches, though they offered no specific examples of compromised information to this point. Instead, they pointed to the recent security breach at Target Corp. The nation’s second-largest retailer said Friday that personal information connected to about 70 million customers through credit and debit card accounts had been stolen in a pre-Christmas data breach.
“What if Target had not bothered to tell anyone?” asked Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who argued that the Health and Human Services Department’s promise to notify Americans of security breaches needed the force of law.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., spoke of “credible and documented fear” of the health care website.
But Democrats said there had been no breaches at the health care website. The bill was simply a Republican effort to “put fear into the public,” according to Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Rep. Diane DeGette, D-Colo., described the legislation as a “solution in search of a problem.”
In fact, there was at least one breach last year. A North Carolina man tried to log onto the website and got a South Carolina man’s personal information. The administration had to scramble to make a software fix.
Republicans used debate on the bill to assail the health care law more broadly.
The goal of the Affordable Care Act is to expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans who lack insurance, to lower health care costs, to increase access to preventive services and to eliminate some of the pre-existing condition requirements that insurance companies have used to deny coverage. The health care website got off to a calamitous start on Oct. 1, followed quickly by widespread reports of cancelled policies and higher premiums.
To date, more than 2 million Americans have signed up for coverage through the federal marketplace covering 36 states and separate exchanges in 14 states. At the same time, at least 4.7 million people who buy their own insurance were told their policies would no longer be offered this year because they failed to meet the standards of the law.
Republicans who steadfastly opposed the law have seized on Obama’s proclamation — repeated by many Democrats — that if you liked your health care, you could keep it. The House voted more than 40 times last year to repeal, replace or undo parts of the law, but the Senate continues to support it.
Among the House Democrats who voted with the GOP were Senate candidates Bruce Braley of Iowa, Gary Peters of Michigan and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii. Democrats high on the GOP’s target list such as Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Nick Rahall of West Virginia also backed the measure.
Next up as a political test is a House bill that would require the administration to report weekly on the number of visits to the government health care website, the number of Americans who applied and the number of enrollees by ZIP code, as well as other statistics. The administration has opposed this measure, saying it has been providing information on enrollments, and the added requirements would force it to hire new staff.
The House will debate that measure next week.