By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. healthcare official on Thursday challenged claims by Republican lawmakers that the country's healthcare reform law is causing workers to lose hours or benefits, saying she is aware of only isolated cutbacks.
At a stormy House of Representatives committee hearing, Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the Medicare and Medicaid programs, said she has found only anecdotal evidence of employers reducing work hours or benefits because of worries about President Barack Obama's landmark reforms, which take effect on January 1.
"I am out there. I am listening. I do hear isolated incidents of individuals trying to cut back hours," said Tavenner, who is overseeing much of Obamacare's implementation as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The law requires employers with at least 50 full-time workers to provide health coverage, including more extensive benefits than may be available now. Some employers have moved to reduce weekly hours to their staff to avoid providing benefits.
Tavenner's characterization of the business impact as isolated angered Republicans at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, who accused Tavenner of being out of touch with concerns among businesses.
"It seems like you're living in some cocoon," said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
Tavenner, a former nurse who is widely respected as a policy expert without partisan allegiances, replied that Obamacare's approaching implementation has come as good news for businesses that want to provide health coverage for their workers.
"I've met with large employers in Georgia and Florida. I've met with small employers. I've been all across this country," Tavenner said. "I actually talked to over 1,000 small businesses in Miami a couple months ago, and what they're doing is, they're trying to learn about the law and see if they can make it work for them."
Earlier this week, the White House also took aim at economic criticisms of healthcare reform by releasing data it said shows no evidence that the law has affected job growth, reduced worker hours or caused healthcare costs to skyrocket.
The majority Republicans in the House are expected to conduct a symbolic vote to repeal the law on Friday - the 40th time the chamber has voted to either repeal or defund the law. The measure will likely die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"The law has become the Republicans' great white whale. They will stop at nothing to kill it," said Representative Henry Waxman, the panel's top Democrat.
Republicans hope to turn Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into a winning campaign issue in next year's congressional elections by portraying it as a mistake that will mean higher insurance costs and less access to medical services. The midterm elections will determine the partisan make-up of Congress heading into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The image of employers beset by burdensome Obamacare regulations has figured prominently in Republican attacks on the healthcare reform law. The administration allayed some concerns a month ago by announcing a one-year delay, until 2015, in the law's requirement for larger employers to provide coverage or pay a fine.
An estimated 7 million uninsured Americans are expected to sign up for new subsidized health plans on state insurance exchanges next year. Millions more are due to gain coverage through an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor in 23 states that have decided to participate.
Obamacare also seeks to save costs in Medicare by shifting the healthcare program for the elderly and disabled toward care delivery systems intended to save money while improving quality.
On Tuesday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the delay in the employer mandate would cost the government $12 billion and affect 1 million workers, with roughly half going without coverage and the remainder finding insurance through the exchanges or Medicaid.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Eric Beech)