Obama Seeking Fix for Health Insurance Cancellations

Photographer: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at The Port Of New Orleans on Nov. 8, 2013. Close

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at The Port Of New Orleans on Nov. 8, 2013.

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Photographer: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at The Port Of New Orleans on Nov. 8, 2013.

President Barack Obama directed his aides to look for “administrative solutions” to halt cancellations of individual insurance policies as a result of his health-care law, a spokesman said today.

“The president did acknowledge that there are some gaps in the law that need to be repaired,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama to an event in Louisiana, a day after the president said he’s “sorry” some people are getting cancellation letters from insurers.

White House staff members met at the Capitol today with representatives of top House Democrats to present ideas for changes that wouldn’t require legislation, according to a leadership aide, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.

Obama and his allies are acting to head off legislative action to alter the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature domestic achievement. The Republican-controlled House is poised to vote next week on a measure that would allow health-care plans currently available to continue into next year without penalty. Two Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also have made proposals to address signup delays and canceled policies.

Political Concerns

Last month’s faulty rollout of the website designed to enable Americans to shop for coverage and revelations that hundreds of thousands of people have received cancellation notices from their insurers have driven down Obama’s approval ratings and given ammunition to Republicans opposed to the law.

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, subpoenaed the Obama administration’s technology chief to testify before the panel on Nov. 13 about the website’s troubles.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park is “the only invited witness who remains unwilling to appear voluntarily,” Issa said in a letter to Park released tonight by the panel.

The technical failures and cancellations have also sparked an outcry among some Democratic lawmakers who are up for re-election next year and face the prospect that their Republican opponents will use them as campaign issues.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm, is targeting Democrats, urging them to apologize for problems with the health-care law. A release titled “It’s Your Turn to Apologize” went out to dozens of Democratic districts, including those represented by Ron Barber of Arizona, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Joe Garcia of Florida and Jim Himes of Connecticut.

Changes Urged

Obama’s allies are pushing the White House to make changes, including delaying penalties and extending the enrollment period for the insurance policies. Those kinds of fixes could give Democrats in vulnerable seats a way to acknowledge the problems with the law without undermining one of their party’s major achievements.

The law requires all Americans to be covered next year or pay a penalty. Those who want plans that begin Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15 -- by mail, phone or through the federal or state-run exchanges. Many of the plans being canceled don’t meet the coverage requirements under the law and have been changed by insurers since the law took effect in 2010.

“The president has said for years now that he is open to working with members of Congress that have a legitimate interest in trying to strengthen the Affordable Care Act,” Earnest said, adding that the White House prefers executive solutions to congressional legislation.

Obama’s Apology

Obama’s pledge that individuals would be able to keep their coverage and their doctors was a central selling point of his health-care overhaul, aimed at calming consumers concerned that they would be forced to give up policies and doctors they liked as the program expanded coverage to many of the nation’s 48 million uninsured.

In his apology to Americans who are losing coverage as a result of the law, Obama said he’s “sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

Speaking in an interview yesterday with NBC News at the White House, the president said, “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

‘Truly Sorry’

Republicans seized on the president’s remarks and criticized him for not supporting legislation they have pushed that would allow Americans to keep their current plans.

“If the president is truly sorry for breaking his promises to the American people, he’ll do more than just issue a half-hearted apology on TV,” Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement yesterday.

Speaking to NBC, Obama asked voters to judge the law based on the final results -- not the technical issues many have faced during the enrollment period.

“When you try to do something big like make our health-care system better, there are going to be problems along the way,” he said. “I hope that people will look at the end product.”

Obama previously accused his critics of being “grossly misleading” about how the law works and said those people being thrown off plans that don’t meet the law’s standards will be getting better insurance coverage.

Cancellation Notices

Yet, administration officials knew by June 2010 that as many as 10 million people with individual insurance probably would be thrown off existing plans. The cancellations are a result of provisions in the act, which Obama signed into law in March 2010, that say policies that fail to offer benefits such as prescription drug coverage and free preventive care can’t be sold after this year even if they’re cheaper.

As cancellation notices began arriving last month, White House officials argued that just 5 percent of the population is affected, and that insurance company practices, not the law, were to blame.

“In this transition, there are going to be folks who get a cancellation letter,” Obama said in the interview. “We have to make sure that they are not feeling as if they’ve been betrayed by an effort that is designed to help them.”

The president invited Landrieu and 14 other Democratic senators facing re-election to a two-hour White House meeting on Nov. 6 to air their complaints. Landrieu also accompanied Obama on his trip to New Orleans.

During his speech today, Obama didn’t directly address the coverage issues and he defended the law. He said he expected critics to continue attacking it “until it’s working really well, then they’re going to stop calling it Obamacare.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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