As health deadlines loom, Obama's credibility on the line

11:13 AM, Nov 16, 2013   |    comments
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President Obama and his administration are promising significant improvements to Obamacare in the coming weeks. If their deadlines aren't met, his health care law would not only fail to meet a number of expectations, but the president's credibility and congressional Democrats' re-election chances would be left at risk.

Mr. Obama acknowledged as much on Thursday, when he announced he was implementing an administrative fix to address the fact that millions of Americans are being dropped from their insurance plans on the individual market.

"I think it's legitimate for [people] to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular, and on a whole range of these issues in general," he said. "And that's on me. I mean, we fumbled the roll out on this health care law."

He also said he felt "deeply responsible" for making it harder for Democrats to support the law. "There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA 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," he said.

If the president doesn't win back credibility on this issue -- his signature law -- he may risk tarnishing his presidential legacy. Winning credibility back will be difficult, but it starts with fixing, the flawed website that serves as a portal for the new Obamacare marketplaces in 36 states. If the website isn't running smoothly for the vast majority of users by then, the administration will have once again broken a promise related to the Affordable Care Act, and it could leave the new marketplaces seriously destabilized.

In a blog post Friday, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), wrote that the team focused on fixing the website has made "measurable progress" but still has a lot to accomplish. Traffic and activity on the site has increased in the last week, indicating that the improvements made so far have allowed more users to browse for insurance plans.

"But we clearly need the system to perform reliably with fast response times at higher volumes," she wrote. "There is still a lot of work to be done to continue to improve the system and user experience. And it's likely that as we move forward we will find additional glitches and experience intermittent periods of sub-optimal performance."

In the meantime, it's unclear whether Mr. Obama's administrative fix for those losing their insurance plans will make much of a difference. State insurance commissioners are still deciding whether or not to go along with Mr. Obama's plan, which would allow insurers to renew existing plans for another year. It's also unclear whether insurance companies would go along with it, and whether they'll raise premiums in the process.

Most affected consumers will want those questions answered in the next couple of weeks -- those being dropped from their current plans have until Dec. 15 to sign up on the Obamacare marketplaces for insurance coverage in 2014. The president met Friday afternoon with CEOs from the health insurance industry to discuss the changes to the market.

"What we're going to be doing is brainstorming on how we make sure that everybody understands what their options are," Mr. Obama said ahead of the meeting. "Because of choice and competition, a whole lot of Americans who've always seen health insurance out of reach are going to be in a position to purchase it. And because of the law, we're also going to be able to provide them help even if they are still having trouble purchasing that insurance, but they've got to know what those options are in order to be successful."

The disruption in the marketplace has also rattled vulnerable congressional Democrats up for re-election next year. More than three dozen House Democrats joined most Republicans on Friday topass a bill that would take Mr. Obama's administrative fix one step further and let insurers sell existing plans to new customers, not just those who already have those plans. The White House has issued a veto threat on that bill, calling it too disruptive.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a vulnerable Democrat up for re-election, sponsored another bill that would go further than Mr. Obama's policy change and actually force insurers to keep offering existing plans to their customers. Landrieu told reporters Thursday that Mr. Obama's move "was a great first step," but she added, "We will probably need legislation to make it stick."

Some Democrats have suggested that they should stay the course and let Obamacare unfold as planned -- and let voters come around to it in the coming months.

Five-term Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in a statement that people losing their insurance now should learn that they can get better coverage on the Obamacare marketplace. He relayed an anecdote about one of his constituents whose son did just that.

"In the coming months, we will hear from even more Americans - like the stories I am hearing from Iowans - who are taking advantage of this coverage," he said.

As the president waits for the new market to settle and for to improve, he's rallying his supporters to his side. On Monday night, Mr. Obama will speak to supporters on a conference call hosted by the Organizing for Action, the nonprofit that evolved from the president's campaign organization Obama for America.

In an email sent to OFA supporters Friday, Mr. Obama wrote, "I want to cut through the noise and talk with you directly about where we're headed in the fight for change."

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