President Barack Obama said he’s sorry that thousands of Americans are losing their medical insurance as a result of his health-care law, as his administration works to contain the political damage from the troubled rollout of his signature domestic achievement.
Hundreds of thousands of individual health insurance plans are being canceled, contradicting Obama’s repeated pledge that people who like their coverage would be able to keep it when the law took effect.
“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” Obama told NBC News in an interview at the White House yesterday. “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.”
Obama’s public approval ratings have been driven down by the flawed startup of the government website intended as the main gateway to federal health-care exchanges under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and by stories about canceled policies.
His oft-repeated 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.
Republicans pounced on the president’s remarks, attacking Obama 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.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, echoed McConnell, saying in a statement that “an apology is certainly in order, but what Americans want to hear is that the president is going to keep his promise.”
The House plans next week to take up a measure that would allow individuals to keep their plans even if the coverage fails to meet the health-law’s standards.
The White House is looking for “administrative solutions” to help individuals whose policies have been canceled, Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama to an event in Louisiana. He repeated that the administration is willing to work with lawmakers.
“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.
Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is co-sponsor of a Senate bill similar to the House proposal, is traveling with Obama today. Landrieu is seeking re-election next year in a state that Obama lost by 17 percentage points. Earnest gave no details about their conversation.
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. 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.
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’s remarks are part of his administration’s effort to fend off attacks on the law, which includes criticism from some fellow Democrats.
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 before he flew to Texas to meet with volunteers helping the uninsured sign up and to criticize Republican governors who have resisted implementing the law.
White House officials are using a visit by Obama to New Orleans and Miami today to pressure the Republican governors of both Louisiana and Florida to expand Medicaid, a key to the law’s goal of expanding health coverage to at least 30 million more Americans.
A number of Republican governors and 25 states oppose the enlargement of the joint federal-state health program to cover residents with incomes up to $32,500 for a family of four, as called for in the law, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health-research group based in Menlo Park, California. The U.S. government would pay all the added cost for the first three years and at least 90 percent after that.
“It is reckless that some governors are so determined to see that the health-care law not succeed that they have even decided not to expand Medicaid coverage,” White House adviser David Simas told reporters yesterday.
Obama’s remarks in Louisiana are focused on the importance of exports to economic growth.
The administration had set a target of 800,000 Obamacare enrollments for the first two months. Speaking to a Senate panel on Nov. 6, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the initial enrollment for the first month of the program, which will be announced by the administration next week, will be “very low,” though she declined to provide specific figures.
Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser from 2009-2010, blamed the healthcare.gov website’s troubles on anti-government sentiment fostered by Obamacare opponents that has discouraged people from entering the federal workforce.
“They have made it almost impossible for many well-intentioned people to go into government,” Summers said in an interview on the Fusion television network. “The fact that it takes so long to be confirmed by the Senate, the fact that you have to go through the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy to enter government.”