By: Reid J. Epstein
For years since the Affordable Care Act’s passage, President Barack Obama’s mantra has been that if people like their health insurance plans, they can keep them.
That line now includes a significant asterisk.
Obama on Monday sought to push back against the most recent tide of inconvenient Obamacare headlines — tales of insurance companies ending inexpensive individual market plans that provide insufficient coverage under the ACA.
Allowing those plans to be changed or sold to new customers, Obama told supporters of his Organizing for Action political arm who gathered in Washington to celebrate and strategize for the implementation of his signature law, would be “breaking an even more important promise” of extending “quality, affordable” health coverage to all. If insurance companies choose to maintain their inferior plans, Obama said, people are welcome to remain on them.
“Now, if you had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” he said.
The extra clause represents a slight change — and a slightly tougher sell — from the “if you like your plan, you can keep it” refrain of the 2012 campaign and most of 2013. But Obama said it is necessary because people on individual market often “don’t know how vulnerable they are.”
“The bottom line,” Obama said, “is we are making the insurance market better for everyone.”
Speaking to about 200 supporters in a small ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, Obama praised the work of volunteers in enacting the landmark healthcare law in 2010. He echoed the frustration many activists feel about the balky website that is keeping millions from enrolling in state health exchanges and said, as he has been doing for a month, that no one is angrier than he about the rollout.
“Let’s face it, a lot of us didn’t realize that passing the law was the easy part,” Obama said.
Obama’s explanation Monday is similar, but a step beyond what he said last week during his healthcare speech in Boston. That speech marked the president’s first foray beyond the simpler message he had been pitching.
“Ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel those substandard plans, they have had to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage,” Obama said last week. “Because that too was a central promise of the Affordable Care Act – from the very beginning.”
Obama’s remarks — largely a laundry list of ACA benefits that don’t require a functioning website — marked the latest effort by his administration and its allies to push a positive healthcare message amid a flood of negative coverage: Since Obama took to the Rose Garden Oct. 1 to urge Americans to stick with HealthCare.gov despite the technical headaches, the White House has struggled to find health care language that sticks.
The president first argued that the website built to handle new registrations was clogged with too much traffic. Soon, he stressed instead that the ACA is more than a faulty website. By last week, he found himself caught up in explanations of why some people in the individual insurance market were losing their plans.
But with HealthCare.gov only intermittently operable, with many Americans still unable to log on, Obama’s army of OFA volunteers that has been in place to enroll the uninsured has been left scrambling for new health care-related tasks.
“As long as the website’s not working the way it should, it makes it harder for you to help them get covered,” Obama said of the uninsured.
Instead of being a month into its long-planned push to draw people to the administration’s central health care portal, OFA is surveying its email list about their thoughts on the law and trying to beat back Republican opposition.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick marked the full messaging pivot for the group Monday: from a focus on enrolling the uninsured, to a mandate to sell the new health care entitlements built into the law, regardless of the functionality of HealthCare.gov.
“The website is imperfect now, but it will get fixed,” Patrick said. “But the benefits are there right now. The benefits are what we should be talking about.”
Patrick was one of several speakers preceding Obama Monday who described the health care law’s implementation as part of a larger struggle, and described the bumbled HealthCare.gov rollout as if it were just another obstacle put in place by obstinate Republicans.
He urged OFA supporters not to give up on the health care law just because they can’t help people enroll online as had been the plan.
“Universal healthcare is not about a website — it is a value statement. It’s about the kind of country that we are, the character of who we are,” Patrick said. “If it requires a little more patience from us for the administration to get the website right, let me tell you, its worth it.”
David Plouffe, who called problems with HealthCare.gov “an inexcusable error,” reminded the crowd that presidents had been trying to implement a federal universal healthcare law for about 100 years before the ACA’s passage.
Plouffe said enrollment will go smoothly “as long as the website is completed and works error-free and delay-free by the end of the month.”
And in between shots at Republicans, Fox News and others who oppose Obamacare, Plouffe said “we know we can get this done. We can hit the enrollment targets.”
Brad Woodhouse, the president of the progressive advocacy group Americans United for Change, turned the focus to Republicans, who he called worse than hypocritical for complaining about the HealthCare.gov rollout after voting for three years to repeal or defund the law.
“The bugs in Obamacare will be fixed, but there is no cure for Obamacare derangement syndrome,” Woodhouse said. “We didn’t shrink from this fight in the darkest and most difficult hours through the bill’s passage, and we will not shrink from this fight now.”
And OFA’s executive director, Jon Carson, described the summit as one to plot strategy — a month after the ACA exchanges went live — as a time to make new plans for how to enroll the uninsured and help the White House implement the law.
“What we’re here today to celebrate, what we’re talking about and holding breakout meetings for this afternoon is to make the concrete plans for these next five months that we need to see for the implementation of Obamacare,” Carson said. “Despite the setbacks here in the first month, we’ve heard from people in states where major strides are being made.” http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=74FFE2E2-B378-404E-8DF0-6D4A8E9A2ABB