Conceding that he has “fumbled” the rollout to his signature health care reform law, President Obama on Thursday said he will use executive authority to craft a series of loopholes to allow some Americans to keep their insurance policies for at least another year.
The unexpected compromise was announced amid growing revolt within Mr. Obama’s own party over his broken promise that Americans who liked their insurance could keep it. But it sparked another backlash as some legal scholars questioned whether the president had the authority to create the loophole, and some state insurance commissioners said they would ignore Mr. Obama’s directive.
That means some people in the individual insurance market still will have their policies canceled.
The president was left with little choice but to make major changes to his namesake legislation after pressure from Americans furious at the millions of cancellation notices in recent months and criticism from top Democrats including former President Bill Clinton.
“I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans, particularly after assurances they heard from me that if they had a plan they like, they can keep it,” Mr. Obama said. “To those Americans: I hear you loud and clear. I said I would do everything we can to fix this problem and today I’m offering an idea that will help do it.”
The administration said it would use “enforcement discretion” to halt for one year the part of the Affordable Care Act that requires all plans to meet stringent coverage standards.
SEE ALSO: Obama’s prosecutorial discretion raises questions about executive authority
Instead, Mr. Obama said it will be up to state insurance commissioners whether to insist that plans be canceled or to allow them to be issued.
Republicans immediately cited the president’s reversal as an example of why Obamacare must be repealed entirely. More important, state insurance commissioners and health care industry leaders blasted the proposal; some even said they will ignore it.
“Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers,” said Karen Ignagni, CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association representing the health insurance industry. “Premiums have already been set for next year based on an assumption of when consumers will be transitioning to the new marketplace. If now fewer younger and healthier people choose to purchase coverage in the exchange, premiums will increase and there will be fewer choices for consumers.”
Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said he will reject the proposal and “will not be allowing insurance companies to extend their policies.”
D.C. Insurance Commissioner William P. White echoed those concerns, saying “the action today undercuts the purpose of the exchanges … by creating exceptions that make it more difficult for them to operate.”
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama’s move won praise from Democrats but didn’t end the rebellion among red-state Democrats nervously eyeing next year’s elections.
SEE ALSO: State insurance chiefs already rejecting Obama’s ‘fix’; mixed reaction among Democrats
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, told reporters she will to push for a vote on her own bill to force insurance companies to continue offering their plans.
“I’m going to continue to work with leadership, I’m open to working with Democrats and Republicans, if there’s a legislative step that’s also necessary,” said Ms. Landrieu, whose seat is up for re-election next year.
In the House, Republicans are moving forward with their own legislation that would allow Americans to keep their insurance plans, no matter what. The White House move gives them more ammunition to portray Obamacare as fatally flawed.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the president’s false promise has led to an erosion of credibility in the commander in chief and in his health care law.
“It’s clear the American people simply can’t trust this White House. … Promise after promise from this administration has turned out to be not true,” Mr. Boehner said. “There is no way to fix this.”
The White House said Thursday night it would recommend that Mr. Obama veto the House bill because it would allow insurers to sell substandard plans.
Administration officials have pitched the fix as a transitional reprieve, even if consumers will be dropped again next year, because they believe the Obamacare marketplace will offer a “robust” selection of affordable alternatives.
But there are conditions insurance companies must follow when extending policies.
They must detail for consumers what their renewed coverage does not cover, and they must make consumers aware of state-run and federally facilitated Obamacare markets where they can search for higher-level coverage, often with the help of income-based government subsidies.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of health care policy, analysts say, Mr. Obama was driven to make the announcement by the growing realization that his untrue declarations were taking a toll on the administration’s credibility and on congressional Democrats who could suffer the consequences of Obamacare’s shortcomings at the ballot box next November.
“It’s an immediate addressing of a political problem,” said Donald Taylor, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University.
Mr. Obama flatly acknowledged that there may be political fallout because of failures of his law.
After copping to two key “fumbles” — the largely dysfunctional HealthCare.gov and the millions of cancellation letters sent across the country — the president expressed sympathy for fellow Democrats who voted for the law and may face the end of their political careers as a result.
“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the [Affordable Care Act] smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they’re running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin. And I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place,” Mr. Obama said.
Later Thursday, the president sounded a defiant tone during a campaign-style rally at a Cleveland steel mill. He vowed to see Obamacare through to the end and said he will not apologize for seeking to extend health care coverage to millions of Americans.
As he spoke, it became apparent that the keep-your-plan “fix” will cause a whole new set of problems.
Former Vermont Gov. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a physician, said the president should have allowed the law to work as intended, and should have stood up for the principle to get Americans off of lousy insurance plans and into more comprehensive coverage.
“If you want to make this work, you’ve got to be really hard-nosed and tough-minded about it. He’s not going to run for re-election. If this was me and my popularity goes down to 10 percent, what the hell do I care?” Mr. Dean said during an interview on MSNBC.
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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