The PR nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and David Nather
December 23, 2013 05:21 PM EST
Just when everything seems settled and people are starting to catch their breath, all of a sudden, it’s back.
That’s pretty much any disaster or monster movie. It’s also the story of the Obamacare rollout the past few months. Over and over again, Obama administration officials have promised that they’re finally getting everything under control.
Each time, they assure people, they’ve put whatever the latest problem was to bed. No more changes. No more surprises.
And then another arrives.
This time, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the administration says it’s just “proactively recognizing” the possibility of heavy traffic coming at what was supposed to be Monday night’s sign-up deadline — a date that itself had been shifted back late last month, in response to the website problems. The new deadline is Tuesday night, though that’s somewhat less exact than the NORAD Santa tracker: the deadline had been midnight Eastern Time Monday, but the latest announcement from the administration says only “the end of the day tomorrow.”
For a law that’s faced automatic Republican resistance from the start, the ball fumbling since Oct. 1 that President Barack Obama has repeatedly acknowledged hasn’t helped.
The president and his aides say every announcement has been the result of being responsive and flexible, trying to make the law work for everyone. But at this point, the administration appears to be demonstrating that it lacks either a full sense of what implementing health care entails, or a full sense of the kind of blowback that each shift in the rules, however small, will generate.
Obama’s personal credibility with the American public has tumbled since the website launch, and critics have used each new announcement to try to sink it further. Asked whether this was a reason to call the whole law into question, White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said Monday afternoon on MSNBC, “I’m not worried about that.”
“We’re just trying to make sure everyone who wants to get enrolled to be covered by Jan. 1 is able to do that,” Palmieri said, speaking after the latest news was announced.
The official explanation the administration cited for the move was high demand across multiple time zones, along with “other technical issues.”
But officials denied any actual shift had taken place.
“We still consider the end of the deadline to be today, but we’re going to try to accommodate people who try to get it done today,” Palmieri said.
Shortly afterward, the official HealthCare.gov Twitter account wrote that record demand had prompted this “fail-safe.”
Later, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille sent a written statement playing down the significance of Tuesday.
“The deadline for signing up for coverage to start January 1 is today. We recognize that many have chosen to make their final decisions on today’s deadline and are committed to making sure they can do so,” Bataille said. “Consumers should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage January 1, you should try to sign up today.”
Last week, the administration explained the decision to quietly exempt people with canceled health plans from the individual mandate. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote a letter to six Senate Democrats telling them that people with canceled plans — the ones who found out they couldn’t, in fact, keep their plan if they liked it — would qualify for a “hardship exemption” if they couldn’t replace their plans with coverage they could afford.
“This is not a new policy. We merely clarified on behalf of a group of senators who asked the same questions on behalf of their constituents,” Palmieri said Monday.
“We actually don’t think in reality a great many people will avail themselves of this option,” Palmieri added. “We just want to make sure that people understand they have this option.”
The “hardship exemption” isn’t a new part of the law, but had never applied to people with canceled plans — until Sebelius wrote that she “very much appreciate[s ] your asking for a clarification” on whether that would apply to people with canceled plans.
Here again, the administration said, nothing had changed. Everything was taken care of. But up against a deadline and pressed by outside concerns, it needed another clarification. And not to worry — almost no one would be affected.
And so Monday’s news appears to fit into a well-established Obamacare pattern. When the administration was getting close to fixing the HealthCare.gov website in late November, a top administration official disclosed to Congress that — oops — as much as 40 percent of the website’s IT systems weren’t even built yet.
And when Obama announced his administrative fix for the canceled plans — letting insurers voluntarily extend people’s old, pre-Obamacare plans for another year — about half the states said they’d go along. But nearly half the states didn’t, so that problem wasn’t really fixed.
That’s why the administration announced last week that people who might fall through the cracks of that fix, and haven’t been able to replace their old plans in other ways, can sign up for slimmed-down “catastrophic” health plans as another option.
Other deadlines keep moving too. People were supposed to sign up by Dec. 15 if they wanted their Obamacare coverage to start on Jan. 1, but in late November, the administration moved that deadline back a week. And by mid-December, the administration was even softening that deadline. Instead, people could pay their premiums as late as Dec. 31, and leaned on insurers to volunteer to give them even more time.
The insurers got the message: They’re going to consider people covered even if they pay as late as Jan. 10.
The president spent part of the first weekend of his Hawaii vacation involved with his staff symbolically signing him up for the D.C. health exchange — and picking a bronze plan — “as a show of support for these marketplaces which are providing quality, affordable health care options to more than a million people,” a White House official said Monday.
A White House official said that late Sunday, Obama received a detailed update from the team back in Washington about the deadlines, and was “briefed on the efforts to ensure that the website could handle the large amount of traffic that was predicted and on efforts to ensure a smooth transition on January 1st.” The statement released by the White House didn’t specify whether the president had been told about the decision to shift things back a day, which the administration compares to letting people vote on Election Day so long as they’re in line, even if not in the voting booth, by the time polls close.
But to those who say Obamacare is, as the Republican talking point insists, a train wreck, each new announcement out of the administration is another Pres-to-log in the firebox.
“This latest delay marks the third major change since Secretary Sebelius testified on Dec. 11 when she was asked point blank what changes were in store over the holidays, and she was mum. And yet, another day, another delay,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a frequent critic of the law. “While the holiday surprises have become commonplace, the latest extension is another disappointment for the ‘most transparent administration in history.’ As we celebrate Christmas and prepare to ring in the New Year, we continue to ask, ‘what’s next?’”