President Obama said Thursday he will let Americans renew for one year any health plans that do not meet Obamacare’s coverage standards — a stark attempt to quell the political firestorm around his broken promise that those who like their insurance coverage can keep it under his signature law.
“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, addressing the nation from the White House press briefing room. “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 announcement marked a clear change of course for the White House, which as recently as two weeks ago still was claiming that Americans were aware all along, or should have been aware, that their insurance policies could be canceled because they don’t comply with Obamacare’s standards.
Pressure had been mounting from key Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, who urged the president to stick to his word and step in and stop forced insurance cancellations.
In response to that pressure and to growing reports of Americans losing their coverage, the Obama administration will direct insurers to offer the one-year renewal to millions of customers who received cancellation notices because their existing plans did not offer the type of baseline protections outlined in the Affordable Care Act.
Beyond just the cancellations, the president admitted his administration has “fumbled” the entire rollout of Obamacare. He also cited the rampant problems at HealthCare.gov as an example.
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“We fumbled the rollout on this health care law,” Mr. Obama said. “We always knew these [health insurance] marketplaces, creating a place where people can shop and, through competition, get a better deal for the health insurance their families need, we always knew that was going to be complicated and everybody was going to be paying a lot of attention to it. And we should’ve done a better job getting that right on day one, not on day 28 or day 40.”
Mr. Obama promised the flawed website eventually will be fixed, and stressed that remains open to changing the law wherever necessary, including the fix announced Thursday.
Senior administration officials said Mr. Obama — who recently apologized to people who thought they could keep their plans, based on his oft-repeated vow — directed his team to come up with a fix, as pressure grew on Capitol Hill to satisfy angry constituents who lost their plans and could not explore alternatives on balky websites tied to Obamacare.
The Obama administration said it has the legal authority and discretion to issue the one-year reprieve, since it serves as a “bridge” while a major law is implemented.
But congressional Republicans disagree.
Speaking just before Mr. Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner said he doubted the White House even had the authority to do what it was calling for.
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“I am highly skeptical that they can do this administratively. I just don’t see within the law their ability to do that,” the Ohio Republican said.
The administration pitched the fix as a transitional reprieve, even if consumers will be dropped once again next year, because they believe the Obamcare marketplace will work and offer a “robust” selection of affordable alternatives.
However, the administration placed a pair of conditions on insurers who offer the renewals.
They must detail for consumers what their renewed coverage does not cover, an allusion to Mr. Obama’s assertion that these plans offer bare-bones coverage.
Also, they must make consumers aware of state-run and federally facilitated Obamacare markets where they can search for higher-level health coverage, often with the help of income-based government subsidies. Some of these people may find out they qualify for Medicaid, senior administration officials said.
Moving forward, the president said he’s open to working with Congress to take further steps allowing all Americans to keep their insurance.
“This fix won’t solve every problem for every person, but it’s going to help a lot. Doing more will require working with Congress. I’ve said from the beginning I’m willing to work with Democrats and Republicans to fix problems as they arise,” Mr. Obama said.
During the first month of activity, about 106,000 Americans enrolled in Obamacare’s health care exchanges and fewer than 27,000 of those were from the federally run exchanges, the administration said Wednesday.
The new directive does not allow insurers to offer non-compliant plans to a new enrollees, because the administration feels the proliferation of noncompliant plans would undermine the goals of Obamcare.
The stipulation contrasts with a House Republican-led bill from Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, that would allow new enrollees to hop onto plans that administration views as substandard. That bill is scheduled for a floor vote on Friday.
“The contrast is clear — we are willing to work with anyone who is interested in making sure that the Affordable Care Act works for Americans throughout the country,” an administration official said.