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U.S. House Democrats clamor for Obamacare fix this week

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Democrats, seething over the botched startup of President Barack Obama's healthcare law, are urging U.S. officials to swiftly help people whose existing insurance policies are being canceled due to Obamacare.

Democrats are facing a potentially difficult House vote on Friday, when Republicans will hold a vote on a bill allowing people to keep their current health insurance plans if they like them, even if those plans do not meet the Affordable Care Act's minimum standards for coverage.

A senior House Democratic aide said on Wednesday that during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats and administration officials, the lawmakers called for Obama to announce a remedy to the canceled policies before Friday's House vote.

Several million people are facing cancellation notices because their current plans do not comply with new requirements in Obamacare, such as coverage for mental health treatment and maternity care.

At the same time, the federal HealthCare.gov website that is supposed to allow people to shop for alternative, affordable policies has been plagued by glitches since its October 1 launch.

The Obama administration has said the website will be largely fixed by the end of the month.

During the more than hour-long meeting, House Democrats registered their anger over the Obamacare problems, which they fear will be a major political liability for the party during the 2014 mid-term elections.

"It got heated. Don't come here telling us it (the website) would be fixed by November 30 because the whole world believes it won't be fixed," Representative Jose Serrano of New York told reporters as he described the conversation between his fellow Democrats and administration officials briefing them.

Serrano and other House Democrats told reporters that there is a discussion over whether they should offer a legislative alternative to the Republican measure. No decisions have been made, according to senior Democratic aides, with the vote only two days away.

Meanwhile, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats urged their rank-and-file to vote against the Republican bill, saying it is merely another attempt to repeal the Obamacare law that was passed in 2010 and is being implemented in phases.

The Republican legislation, said Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, "could reinstate exclusions for pre-existing conditions, they could reinstate gender rating that could make women pay more ... this is just another way of undoing the Affordable Health Care Act; maybe the 43rd or 44th repeal" attempted by Republicans.

The law aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. It mandates that most Americans be enrolled for health coverage by March 31 or pay a fine.

Obama has apologized for having told Americans that under Obamacare they would be able to keep their health insurance policies if they liked them, only to see a flood of cancellation notices sent out. He has promised to look at ways of fixing the problem, but has not provided details.

Outside of legislation, there are a range of possible fixes to allow people to temporarily keep their plans, but many are logistically difficult, legally risky, or could undermine other parts of the law, according to policy experts.

Many Democrats have argued that once consumers see that they will be able to get better policies, often with subsidies to lower costs, they will want to switch to Obamacare.

But Republicans have countered that the law is fatally flawed and will result in higher premiums and job losses as small businesses refuse to hire more workers because the law would force them to participate in Obamacare if their workforce reached a certain threshold.

The second-ranking House Republican, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told reporters that the bill that will be up for a vote on Friday "simply allows insurers to make good on the president's promise" to let people keep their insurance if they want it.

"It's not going to fix the entire problem and it doesn't stop Obamacare from being a train wreck. But it is a good first step," Cantor said.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn)

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