Health

Obama: 'I Was Not Informed Website Wasn't Working'

Charles Dharapak/AP

The president offered an administrative fix to the Affordable Care Act at a White House news conference on Thursday, allowing Americans to renew their current health care plans through 2014, in effect extending the grandfather clause. "We fumbled the rollout on this health care law," the president said.

"I think it's fair to say that the rollout has been rough so far," Obama said. "The rollout has been fraught with a whole range of problems that I'm deeply concerned about." The president also said that "despite all of the problems that we've seen with the website, more than 500,000 Americans could know the security of health care by January 1." The number was his original goal for November.

"I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans," he said, "particularly after assurances they heard from me that if they had a plan that they liked they could keep it. And to those Americans, I hear you loud and clear."

The president also deflected criticms over the functioning of HealthCare.gov, saying that he wasn't "informed directly that the website would not be working, as the way it was supposed to. Had I been informed I wouldn't be going out saying, 'boy, this is going to be great.' You know, I'm accused of a lot of things but I don't think I'm stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn't going to work."

The new plan, however, comes under two conditions, senior White House officials say. First, insurers must notify consumers which protections these current plans do not include. Additionally, insurers have to notify consumers they they will have new options in the marketplace that offer better coverage and protections than these plans.

The Department of Health and Human Services will use its enforcement discretion for this fix, a discretion which can be used during big changes to the health care system as a means to ensure implementation runs smoothly.

The policy is designed to allow the subset of Americans who don't meet the subsidy threshold under Obamacare -- people for whom the cancellation of their current policy is perceived as a burden -- to renew their plan.

Senior White House officials say this move allows for a better and smoother transition for this group of individuals to move from the existing market to the new market. In essence, they said, the administration is being responsive to the concerns of Americans.

The cancellations, however, aren't exactly an unforeseen consequence, as the law required insurance companies to create a baseline standard for plans. Now, however, public outcry has transformed them into something akin to unintended results. Officials say the president asked them to "fix this problem," the problem being cancellations, which were, for many insurance providers, inevitable. The president also made sure to note on Thursday that "the old individual market was not working well."

The fix may have some immediate trouble though: at a press conference right before Obama's statement, House Speaker John Boehner said he is "highly skeptical they can do this administratively." The president obvously thinks otherwise. "Regardless of what Congress does, ultimately I'm the president of the United States," he said Thursday. And Americans "expect me to do something about it."

Obama's statement today is shrouded in some ugly developments for the ACA. The malfunctioning website and Obama's pierced "if you like your plan, you can keep it" claim have helped to bring approval for the law down to 40 percent, with 55 percent disapproving in a new Gallup poll. That is the biggest gap in approval in the last year. Just 39 percent of self-identified independents approve of Obamacare.

The slide isn't just in approval for Obamacare. A recent Quinnipiac poll pegged Obama's approval at 39 percent, the lowest they've found since he became president.

Congressional Democrats, worried about increasing frustrations from their constituents whose coverage could be dropped, have considered changes to the ACA. A vote is scheduled for Friday in the House on a GOP bill that would let Americans keep their existing health plans through 2014 without penalties. It may wind up with some significant Democratic support. The Obama administration has previously spoken out against the legislation.

Senior White House officials say the president's proposal is different from the Republican proposal since it does not offer these older and non-compliant plans to Americans who did not have these plans previously. The Republican proposal, which officials say would undermine Obamacare, would allow anyone to sign up for these outdated plans.

Obama's fix jibes with recent remarks from Democrats that the administration ought to directly address the cancellations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she plans to endorse an Obamacare fix from Democrat George Miller that would force insurance companies to keep existing health plans until the end of the open-enrollment period in March. But Pelsoi said at an Atlantic forum that she "would prefer an administrative fix because it could be done much more quickly without any accompanying agendas." She also called the House GOP plan "dangerous."

Several Senate Democrats, including Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La, Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have spoken in favor of similar proposals.

Frustrations hit a new high on Wednesday, as the administration released less than stellar numbers from the health care roll out (though the topline numbers alone don't tell the whole story). In total, just 106,185 people enrolled in the health insurance through HealthCare.gov last month. This is far short the 500,000 the administration hoped to enrol by the end of October.

Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday called on Obama to make good on his campaign promise that people would not lose their health care. "I personally believe," Clinton told OZY, "even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got."

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said that Obama would agree with Clinton's statement, adding that the president was looking into range of options to remedy the problem.

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