Phil Schiliro quickly became the White House's public face of Obamacare since his return. | AP Photo
The Obamacare fixer
By: Carrie Budoff Brown and Jonathan Allen
January 3, 2014 06:05 PM EST
Phil Schiliro’s work on Obamacare has come full circle.
As President Barack Obama’s legislative director, Schiliro helped get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Now, he’s back as the fixer.
Even with the website now working, many Democrats have run out of patience with an administration that has failed to anticipate and address problems before they become political disasters. Every day seems to bring a fresh challenge for the White House, from worries that new insurance policies wouldn’t work on Jan. 1 to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s New Year’s Eve stay of a limited portion of the contraception mandate.
Shortly after his unexpected return last month, Schiliro met with more than a dozen Democratic senators to convince them the White House gets it. His message, according to a Senate aide present: I understand your frustration, and that’s why I’m here — to streamline coordination with the Hill, fix problems, deal with issues before they blow up. He told the senators to reach out whenever they needed him — morning, noon or night, on his mobile phone, at home, by email or any other means necessary.
Senators have heard the call-me line before, from White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other officials. They just didn’t always think anyone was listening on the other end of the line.
Schiliro’s allies say this time is different — or, more important, this guy is different. His sole focus, unlike McDonough, is to run point on the politics and policy of the Obamacare implementation. It’s the mirror to the tech-side troubleshooting job filled first by Jeff Zients and now by Kurt DelBene. Before Schiliro, there was no single person at his level tasked with thinking strategically across the board and managing all the moving parts — from the Hill to the federal agencies to the White House, administration officials said.
“It is a consuming project that involves really complicated policy, difficult politics and lot of stakeholders from pharmacies to hospitals to insurers as well as elected officials,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director who has spent most of her time in recent months managing Obamacare. “He is the one guy here at the White House making sure that it all gets done and is moving on track and each task has 100 percent completion.”
Schiliro, who thought he escaped the White House for good in 2011, wasn’t necessarily eager to come back. But it’s a good match of a person to a problem, current and former White House officials say, because Schiliro, 57, is particularly adept at creating new strategies on the fly. As a former longtime aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), he knows the policy and understands the mind-set of members of Congress. He grew up in a big Italian family on Long Island, where his professors at Hofstra University recall a student who came up with offbeat answers to questions.
That trait made Schiliro valuable to Obama, who nicknamed him “third-way Phil.”
“He’s a methodical strategist and also an unbelievable optimist, and those two things are a rare combination in this town,” said Dan Turton, who worked under Schiliro as the chief White House liaison to the House at the start of the administration. “He never thinks something can’t be done. Nothing is impossible; it’s all about the strategy.”
Since the White House announced his return Dec. 6, Schiliro has quickly become the public face of Obamacare. He mingled with lawmakers at the White House holiday parties. He called congressional leadership staff to the White House for a meeting, and sat down separately with senators and House leaders. This week, he spoke with governors Monday, appeared on television, posted a blog to the White House website and jumped on a conference call late Thursday night to discuss the administration’s response to Sotomayor’s order.
One avenue Schiliro’s pursuing with Democratic leaders in Congress is legislative fixes that allow lawmakers to show their constituents that they’re fighting to make the implementation better. “We’ve worked with [him] to identify areas where our members can be out front without undermining the core of the Affordable Care Act,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
Internally, Schiliro instituted a 9:30 a.m. meeting in his second-floor West Wing office with key members of the White House’s policy, communications and legislative staff — a gathering that continued by phone or in person through the holidays, with the exception of Christmas Day.
The focus is the “priorities list” — an inventory of the top or so 15 projects of the week — that pops into their email inboxes every morning. This past week, for example, they finalized the operations and communications plan for the first three days of coverage, and the strategy for mitigating problems. But they also look ahead: what’s the enrollment strategy for the next three months, what regulations are set for release, who is communicating with the Hill?
At 10 a.m., Schiliro does another call with his counterpart on the tech side, DelBene, and others at Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. And they wrap up the day with a 7 p.m. call among the main principals, including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, CMS Director Marilyn Tavenner and McDonough.
A month ago, this isn’t what Schiliro expected to be doing.
After more than three decades in Washington, he had moved to New Mexico with his wife and daughter, set up a nonprofit consulting business and never contemplated returning to the late-night, early-morning grind at the White House, not even to help rescue the landmark law he helped to pass.
“Three weeks ago, I was happily living in New Mexico, thinking I had left government service behind,” Schiliro said during a Dec. 22 speech at the commencement ceremony at Hofstra University. “The phone rang and I found myself back in Washington 10 days ago working with the president on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. One life lesson I have learned is when the president of the United States asks you to do something, yes is almost always the right answer.”
McDonough, who first called Schiliro, had some convincing to do. He told Schiliro that he was uniquely suited for the job, as somebody who helped pass the law and who understands the Hill, policy and politics. It would be a short-term, intensive assignment — not something that will take him away from New Mexico for long. Plus, McDonough added — playing the trump card — the president needed him.
“It took a couple of days,” Palmieri said. “It wasn’t like Denis called and he was on the next flight.”
On one hand, Schiliro still believes deeply in the law and the president, who Schiliro had long admired for his commitment to pursuing health reform despite the political odds. But the thought of another White House stint held little appeal.
“He is torn,” said Peter Sobol, a friend since their days working as teenagers at a Pathmark grocery store on Long Island. “He’s got a beautiful wife and a daughter that he cherishes spending time with. Now they again have to share that time.”
Schiliro, who was not made available to comment for this story, committed to staying at least through Presidents Day. That’s six weeks before the open enrollment period ends March 31.
“With this rollout and all the complications that have come up that were unanticipated, the people in HHS and the people in the White House were stretched too thin, and Phil Schiliro’s job has been to try to get ahead of and anticipate some of the problems and deal with them early on,” Waxman said. “This is a very new transition for a complicated bill. It has an impact that’s different from one state to another, and with people under different circumstances. So we’re seeing things happen in real time, and rather than just react to it, the White House wanted somebody who could try to get ahead of the issues that are coming up to see what they may be.”
Schiliro faces an understandably weary and wary crowd in Congress. Any hope of Democrats winning the House majority in 2014 already appeared to disappear after the botched Obamacare rollout, and Senate Democrats feel like the president put their majority in jeopardy.
A parade of administration officials, including McDonough and David Simas, had been going to Capitol Hill since the spring. At first, they delivered optimistic PowerPoint presentations on how they would drive consumers to HealthCare.gov. But after the website sputtered Oct. 1, they spent the next two months trying to persuade members of the president’s own party not to start tearing up the law. Often, they just got an earful from angry Democrats.
Some Democrats say privately that the president and his aides should spend less time talking to Congress and more time fixing the fundamental problems with the implementation of the law, an approach that would naturally lead to a stronger political position for all involved. Schiliro’s visage also isn’t a universally welcome sight. He was head of legislative affairs in the two years that preceded House Democrats’ fall from power in 2010.
But fans say Schiliro’s decades on Capitol Hill have given him a rare handle for both the political needs of members of Congress and how they can be addressed in ways that preserve the integrity of the policy.
“You need people in the room at the most elite meetings that not only understand that point of view but also its situational value and context,” Turton said.