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Administration to adjust health care penalty deadline guidance

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WASHINGTON -

The White House said Wednesday that it may announce revised guidance about the date by when Americans are required to purchase health insurance.

The date by when Americans would be penalized for not having signed up for health insurance could be "slid" back by as much as six weeks, administration officials told NBC News.

But it was not immediately clear Wednesday whether the adjustment to a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act would need to be approved by Congress or is just change in interpretation of what the March 31 deadline represents.

As the law stands now, individuals are expected to be insured by March 31 to avoid a financial  penalty. But under the prospective change,  individuals will only be expected to have started enrollment by that date.

But under the prospective change, individuals will only be expected to have started enrollment by March 31 to avoid incurring a penalty.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was already drafting a bill earlier Wednesday to delay the mandate for a year, his spokesman said. And Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, on Wednesday called for an extension of the open enrollment period to allow people more time to purchase coverage; Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas said he supported Shaheen's  "common sense idea" in a statement.

Other critics of the health care law, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have proposed delaying the individual mandate penalty until six months after the Government Accountability Office certifies that the problem-plagued health care website is working.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., tweeted, "#ACA website problems unacceptable. I support extending open enrollment so NC families have time to shop for insurance plan right for them."

And as the Obama administration weighed the changes, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that it will hold daily briefings to update reporters on the progress of what President Barack Obama has called the "tech surge" to rectify the hitches and glitches on the troubled health care website.

The daily briefings will start Thursday, just two days after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Obama did not know about the health insurance website's hitches and glitches until after it was launched three weeks ago.

The president was made aware of the glitches as people reported problems "in the first couple of days" in the rollout of the site designed to help people access healthcare as part of the Affordable Care Act, Sebelius said in an interview with CNN that aired on Tuesday night.

Some Americans said that the website has been anything but stress-free since open-enrollment launched on Oct. 1, and one survey found that only about 20 percent of people who tried to log onto government-run marketplaces including HealthCare.gov were able to do so without any technical bungles.

Users have gotten error messages, the Spanish-language version of the site has been delayed, and the government contract for the U.S. division of Canadian company CGI has tripled in cost. A June report from the Government Accountability Office warned that the website might not be ready for primetime due to a flurry of last-minute changes.

"There's no sugar-coating it," Obama said of the bug-ridden site.

Those worries don't seem to have made it to the Oval Office before the troubled rollout began, however, with Sebelius responding "No, sir," when pressed on whether Obama and HHS had serious concerns about the site before Oct. 1.

"I think that we talked about having testing going forward, and if we had an ideal situation and could have built a product in, you know, a five-year period of time we probably would have taken five years, but we didn't have five years," Sebelius said. "We wanted to make sure we made good on this final implementation of the law."

Sebelius said that she has created an account on the website but has not signed up for a policy because she already has insurance coverage. The website has received about 20 million visits, Sebelius told CNN, while others have sought coverage over the phone and in person.

"I think there are certainly some challenges, it could be smoother, it could be easier to access," Sebelius said in the interview. "And that's really what we're working on. I mean, nobody says that the site is working the way we want it to. Certainly the president acknowledged that yesterday."

Sebelius blamed most of the problems on the site on what she called a high number of visitors.

"I think volume was extremely high," Sebelius told CNN. "But I would say coverage caused some problems, but it also exposed some additional problems, and so we're working hard to make sure that people can go on the site, find the plans they want, make good decisions for themselves and their families."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement on Monday that Sebelius will testify on Oct. 30 and "answer all of the committee's questions."

It was not immediately clear Wednesday who will preside over the daily progress briefings.

In the aftermath of the government shutdown that furloughed hundreds of thousands of government workers, cut off death benefits for the families of deceased members of the armed services and shuttered national parks, Republicans have added the website's failure to their resistance to the Affordable Care Act.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio termed the exchange's messy debut "a disaster that has further eroded the American people's confidence in the federal government's ability to keep basic promises."

Obama has called for a "tech surge" of non-stop repairs to the site, and on Tuesday announced that he had tapped former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget Jeff Zients to clean up the health insurance exchanges.

NBC News' Chuck Todd, Michael O'Brien, Maggie Fox and Tracy Connor contributed to this report.

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