An apologetic Obama unveils fix on health law

Reuters

By Roberta Rampton and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Nov 14 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama onThursday tried to ease the biggest crisis of his presidency,acknowledging missteps with his signature healthcare law andannouncing a plan to help those seeing their current healthplans canceled because of it.

Obama, trying to limit the political damage to hispresidency and fellow Democrats, said health insurers couldextend by at least one year policies due to be canceled becausethey do not comply with new minimum requirements under the law.

With insurers complaining the fix could create new problemsand lead to higher premiums, it was not clear whether Obama'splan would actually work, or soothe his party's concerns thatthe botched rollout has undercut Democrats facing toughre-election fights in 2014.

A chastened Obama said he had "fumbled" the rollout of theAffordable Care Act, his biggest domestic policy achievement,and said he would have to work to regain his credibility and thepublic's trust.

"I hear you loud and clear," he told Americans who are angryhe did not deliver on his repeated promises over the past threeyears that those who liked their plans could keep them.

"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have towin back some credibility on this healthcare law in particularand on a whole range of these issues in general," Obama said,speaking from the podium in the White House press room.

The move was in response to a rising anger from Republicansand fellow Democrats over the prospect of several millionAmericans having their policies canceled.

The furor has reignited a broad debate about the benefits ofthe health system overhaul that was enacted in 2010 in the faceof huge opposition from Republicans who view it as governmentoverreach. It is the most sweeping social legislation since thecreation of Medicare and Medicaid the 1960s.

The Oct. 1 rollout of the program known as Obamacare hasbeen beset by technical glitches with the federal onlineinsurance website that allows consumers to shop for policies. Inrecent days the website's problems have been overshadowed by thesnowballing controversy over the policy cancellations.

The Obama administration on Thursday left open thepossibility of extending the one-year fix beyond 2014 but saidcompanies must spell out how the policies are substandard andwhat alternatives are available.

Crucially, it will be up to state insurance commissioners toallow the Obamacare fix to go ahead, and it will be up toinsurers whether to renew plans that have already been canceled.

Two insurance groups questioned Obama's proposed solution.

"Changing the rules after health plans have already met therequirements of the law could destabilize the market and resultin higher premiums for consumers," said Karen Ignani, presidentand chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans,the lobbying arm of the insurance industry.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners said ina statement that it was unclear how Obama's proposal on canceledpolicies could be put into effect.

'DEEPLY RESPONSIBLE'

Obama's move was designed to short-circuit a push for morefar-reaching changes in Congress and end a growing revolt byDemocrats worried the cancellations, as well as the brokenwebsite, would threaten their re-election bids.

Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who hasintroduced legislation to allow Americans to keep their existinghealth insurance plans, described Obama's announcement as a goodfirst step but "we'll probably need legislation to make itstick."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also stopped short of afull endorsement of Obama's solution and said, "if we need to domore, we will."

Obama said he had let down Democratic supporters who puttheir political careers on the line to back his policy.

"There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACAsmoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're runningor not, because they stood up and supported this," Obama said."I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them, ratherthan easier for them."

Obama told reporters the troubled website would work formost people by the end of the month, and that users will see a"marked and noticeable" improvement because of fixes to thesoftware and hardware that runs it.

The Affordable Care Act aims to provide health benefits tomillions of uninsured Americans. It mandates that most Americansbe enrolled for health coverage by March 31 or pay a fine.

On Thursday, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republicanfrom Ohio, said he doubted Obama could fix the law withadministrative changes. "The only way to fully protect theAmerican people is to scrap this law once and for all."

The House will vote on Friday on a bill by Republican FredUpton of Michigan to allow insurers to offer canceled plans, butDemocrats objected it would undermine the market and drivepremiums up by allowing insurers to offer plans to newcustomers. Democrats said they will offer their own alternative.

Enrollment figures released by the administration onWednesday indicated that only 106,000 people have enrolled forhealth plans through the exchanges, a tiny fraction of thehoped-for millions.

The low figure, while expected because of technical glitcheson the government website, showed how far the administration hasto go to build an individual market of millions of consumers in2014 to keep the healthcare program financially viable. (Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, David Morgan, JeffMason, Caroline Humer, Lewis Krauskopf; Writing by JohnWhitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Ross Colvin and GrantMcCool)

View Comments (28)