WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats concerned about the potential impact of Obamacare on their constituents – and concerned about their own political futures – generally reacted positively to the deferred enforcement applied to the healthcare law by President Obama but several indicated they nonetheless intended to proceed with a legislative fix.
The president on Thursday announced that administrative changes would be implemented in the Affordable Care Act to allow consumers to retain the health insurance policies they currently possess even if they don’t meet the minimum standards established under the nation’s healthcare law.
That new provision is intended to last for one year and temporarily complies with a promise Obama made throughout the Obamacare debate that individuals could maintain their policies if they so desired. That vow was proven faulty in recent weeks as millions of customers reportedly received notices from their insurers that their policies were being cancelled because they failed to meet the requirements of the law.
Facing complaints from policy holders and pressure from lawmakers, Obama acquiesced and decided to allow insurers to continue offering individual insurance plans that fail to contain the minimum benefits – though the companies are under no obligation to do so.
“This fix won’t solve every problem for every person, but it’s going to help a lot of people,” Obama said.
The announcement was met with some relief from Democrats who have been hearing from angry constituents about the impact of the law. The situation was further complicated by what thus far has been the failure of healthcare.gov, the website established by the federal government to permit consumers to compare and purchase healthcare policies. Many of those who received termination notices found themselves unable to link on to the site – making it nearly impossible to shop for policies to replace the ones they lost.
In response to the brouhaha, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is expected to face a tough re-election fight in 2014, sponsored the Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act last week, which requires insurance companies to continue providing plans offered before the Obamacare standards took effect. Insurance firms would also have to explain to consumers why their plans might fall short of the law’s standards, something the administration is also requiring in its extension of the grandfathering of old plans.
Landrieu said that while she was “encouraged” that Obama acted “to stop the cancellation of insurance policies that Americans were promised they could retain,” she nonetheless intends to continue working on a legislative fix to the problem.
“I remain willing to work with anyone who wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and keep the significant promise that it holds for our country,” Landrieu said. “If this were easy it would have been done 100 years ago. But for the first time in the history of the country under the Affordable Care Act, middle-class and hard-working families, entrepreneurs, and small businesses will have access to affordable, quality healthcare that’s there when they need it most. And that is certainly something worth fighting for.”
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who also faces the voters in 2016 and supports the Landrieu bill, said the Obama fix is a “step in the right direction” but argued it doesn’t go far enough.
“Americans who have health insurance that they like should be able to keep it,” Hagan said. “Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction that will remove some of the uncertainty people are facing right now, especially in light of the unacceptable failures of healthcare.gov. But a one-year fix is not enough and we need to do more.”
Hagan said a permanent solution is needed “so we do not simply kick the can down the road.” The Landrieu bill, she said, “will give people certainty that they will not lose their current coverage.”
“Right now North Carolinians need accountability, they need to be able to keep their current plans, and we need actual progress on getting healthcare.gov to work,” Hagan said. “I will continue to hold the Administration and insurance companies accountable.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the Landrieu bill, took a slightly different tack, indicating a legislative solution may no longer be necessary. The onus now, he said, falls on the insurance industry.
“I applaud President Obama for responding to the call I and others have put forward to honor the promise of giving citizens with individual insurance plans the option of keeping their plan,” Merkley said. “To fulfill this promise, insurance companies must do their part by extending these plans for their customers. I call upon all insurance companies to fulfill their end of this critical partnership. We cannot go back to the old way of doing things on healthcare and need to see these important reforms through so that every Oregonian has the security of healthcare they can count on.”
But co-sponsor Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said he’d keep pushing for the bill as “the problems with the website and canceled plans are unacceptable.”
“There are too many on the left who say that we shouldn’t change anything and too many on the right who say we should just repeal the entire bill.,” he said. I’d rather work in a bipartisan way to improve the law so it works better for Hoosier families.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said legislation is no longer warranted in light of the president’s decision. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) went so far as to say he wouldn’t have offered the concession.
“If it had been up to me, I am not certain I would have made this decision, but the president felt it was important to do,” Harkin said. “My hope, however, is that everyone who has received a cancellation notice will fully and carefully consider their options.”
In most cases, Harkin said, those receiving cancellation notices will find that “the coverage that they were paying good money for is not worth the paper it was printed on.” If they enter healthcare.gov, he added, “they can get quality coverage – in some cases paying a little more, perhaps, but getting many more benefits.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), up for re-election in 2014, was especially vocal against the president today. He recently ditched his congressional health plan and signed up on the healthcare exchange, saying he wanted to experience the same challenges as his constituents.
“I am disappointed in how this has been implemented and rolled out. There have been too many people making decisions who weren’t coordinating with each other and not enough focus on how to make this system work,” said Begich. “At the end of the day we need happy customers and people should be satisfied with their health plans which is why I’m supporting a fix to law which will allow folks to keep their insurance if they like it. I support making it permanent so that families who have received notifications that their health plans are cancelled can continue to keep their healthcare if it works for them.”
The president’s announcement will likely have little impact on the House, which is scheduled to vote Friday on a bill from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the Keep Your Health Plan Act, which permits insurance firms to sell policies that fail to meet Obamacare requirements for one year.
The bill may need some Democratic votes to pass since conservatives may oppose the move, viewing it as a maneuver that might politically assist Obama and the healthcare law they oppose. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doubts the president can resolve the situation unilaterally.
“No one can identify anything the president could do administratively to keep his pledge that would be both legal and effective,” Boehner said. “I am highly skeptical they can do this administratively.”
The House Democratic leadership opposes the bill and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Obama’s plan “is straightforward and fair – it will allow consumers to keep their plans if they like them. As a result of the president’s actions, consumers will have additional choices and the information they need to make an informed decision about their healthcare.”
Meanwhile, Obamacare, which has never attracted substantial public support, appears to be losing ground. A Gallup Poll conducted Nov. 7-10 found that only 40 percent of those surveyed approve of Obamacare while 55 percent disapprove.
Support for the law dropped four points in the space of two weeks. Gallup attributed the plunge to the reports that millions could lose their insurance under the law despite Obama’s promises.