In a startling rebuke to President Obama, former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats picked apart Obamacare on Tuesday as privacy concerns about the program’s website multiplied and a video investigation suggested fraudulence among volunteers helping people enroll for government subsidies.
Mr. Clinton called on the president to make good on his repeated and emphatic promise that Americans who like their health insurance plans can keep them. The former president said Mr. Obama should take that step on behalf of consumers whose policies were canceled, “even if it takes a change in the law.”
The White House said Mr. Obama is considering a “range of options” but didn’t commit to Mr. Clinton’s proposal. In a reminder of Mr. Obama’s on-again, off-again relationship with Mr. Clinton, the president’s spokesman pointed out that Mr. Clinton tried and failed to enact universal health care.
The highly public rebuff prompted open speculation that Team Clinton has begun to distance itself from Mr. Obama in preparation for a presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. “And so starts the Clinton team slowly walking away from the train wreck that is the Obama presidency,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Lanny Davis, who was an adviser in the Clinton White House, called such talk “speculation” but said Mr. Obama should heed the increasing call of Democrats to change the health care law.
“A lot of Democrats that I’ve talked to all day are saying just do it — make the fix,” Mr. Davis said. In a column to be published in The Hill newspaper Thursday, Mr. Davis argues that Mr. Obama “might be well advised to admit to trying to do too much too soon in a 1,000+ page ObamaCare bill, passed by an almost entirely partisan vote in 2010 — and revert back to a step-by-step approach to increase required coverage over a longer period of time, in effect reinstating the guarantee that if you have insurance, you can keep your policies.”
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“Such a mid-course correction could be a compromise worth trying — saving not only public support for ObamaCare but perhaps the Democratic control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 elections as well,” he writes.
But a Democratic operative aligned with the Obama White House characterized Mr. Clinton’s comments as unhelpful, especially in light of a House vote scheduled for Friday to allow consumers to keep their health care plans.
“These comments leave rank-and-file Democrats on the Hill awfully exposed right now, especially in the House,” the Obama ally said. “Clinton has now made it a much tougher vote than it should be.”
In what could be the start of a Democratic stampede away from the president’s signature program, Sen. Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina said she plans to formally request a government investigation of Obamacare’s botched rollout. Mrs. Hagan, a Democrat whose re-election effort next year has been imperiled by her support of the law, said she wants to “make sure it never happens again.”
With the White House starting to lose Obamacare allies in the president’s own party, a video investigation bolstered Republicans’ concerns that the entitlement program is ripe for fraud. The video produced by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas appears to show Obamacare “navigators” in Dallas advising a man to falsify his application to obtain higher government subsidies and a lower premium.
The encounter between a Project Veritas “investigator” and an Obamacare navigator was taped secretly at the National Urban League’s offices in Dallas. When the undercover investigator says he never reports outside income on his tax returns, the Obamacare volunteer advises him not to get in “trouble” by declaring the income now.
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Other Obamacare navigators can be heard informing the man not to disclose that he smokes tobacco, so he can receive a lower insurance premium.
“You lie because your premiums will be higher,” an Obamacare navigator advises the Project Veritas investigator.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, called it “yet another broken piece of a deeply flawed system.”
“The Obama administration should stop this program immediately. Texans should not be purposefully misled and, more importantly, their privacy should not be put at risk,” Mr. Cornyn said.
As Obamacare was being rolled out this fall, Republican lawmakers fought to get the administration to agree to verify applicants’ income, to make sure people qualify for subsidies. Many Republicans have expressed concern about the program’s potential for fraud and abuse.
Concerns also have been raised about the program’s security and the potential for identity theft on HealthCare.gov.
A memo that surfaced from a top official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said “the threat and risk potential [to the system] is limitless.” The memo shows that CMS gave deadlines of mid-2014 and early 2015 to address the problems, although the project manager, Henry Chao, told congressional investigators in closed-door testimony that he was not aware of the security risks.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on whether personal information entered into the Obamacare database is secure from hackers.
“Americans are entering their most sensitive personal data into the website and now the same people who told us the system would work are telling us it is secure,” said Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican. “Before Americans are forced to enter their personal information into a flawed website, they should be reassured that it won’t be compromised.”
The Department of Homeland Security has the responsibility for securing the website and all other dot-gov domains.
The developments emerged as the administration was preparing to release its first monthly report this week on the number of Obamacare enrollees, which reportedly totaled only 50,000 in October because of website failures and other problems. That would put the program far short of its goal of enrolling 3.3 million people by the end of December.
Mr. Obama has tried in recent days to “pivot” away from health care to his second-term agenda, and there was fresh evidence why Tuesday: A Quinnipiac University poll shows the president has reached his lowest approval rating in the survey since taking office, with 39 percent of registered voters approving of his job performance and 54 percent disapproving.
That was a drop of 6 points in his job approval rating since Oct. 1, when the partial government shutdown began and problems with the rollout of his health care overhaul took hold.
Democrats are showing signs of feeling the heat from Obamacare’s disastrous start. In addition to Mrs. Hagan, Rep. Kurt Schrader, Oregon Democrat, blasted Mr. Obama in a local television interview for being “grossly misleading” with his promise that everyone could keep their health insurance plans.
In what could be a sign of things to come for Democratic candidates next year, Republicans quickly pointed out Mr. Schrader’s ardent support for the health care law. The National Republican Congressional Committee said Tuesday that Mr. Schrader used the same incorrect claims on his own website after the law was enacted in 2010.
NRCC spokeswoman Alleigh Marre accused Mr. Schrader of “blatantly misleading voters in the face of changing political winds and the plan’s botched rollout.”
But the most significant Democratic rift with the administration was that of Mr. Clinton, who called out Mr. Obama in an interview on the startup website Ozy for the failures of the health care rollout. Although the former president said Americans are better off with the law than without it, he challenged Mr. Obama to deliver on his promise that Americans wouldn’t be forced to change their insurance plans.
“They were the ones who heard the promise, if you like what you’ve got you can keep it,” Mr. Clinton said, referring to people who are receiving cancellation letters from insurers. “I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to these people and let them keep what they got.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is trying to help consumers who have been forced off their plans into more expensive coverage.
“The president has tasked his team with looking at a range of options, as he said, to make sure that nobody is put in a position where their plans have been canceled and they can’t afford a better plan, even though they’d like to have a better plan,” Mr. Carney said.
But he gave no indication of how the administration might do that. Insurance companies are canceling policies because of requirements under the health care law for expanded coverage, and they likely would need to agree to any effort to restore old policies.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who is up for re-election next year, cited Mr. Clinton’s comments as evidence of “growing interest” in legislation proposed by her and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, to allow people to keep their health care plans.
Meanwhile, the administration said Tuesday that it would blast out emails this week to 275,000 consumers who got “stuck” on the Obamacare website during early attempts to enroll.
It is an attempt to win back uninsured Americans who could not register for an account on the front end of HealthCare.gov, which is supposed to connect residents in 36 states with health care plans.
The emails will “go out in waves” and target those who appeared to try to register or apply, but got hung up on a segment of the glitch-laden website, said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for CMS.
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.