After apology on Obamacare, Obama faces bipartisan squeeze

President Obama said he is 'sorry' about people who are losing insurance plans they like, but public opinion isn't his only challenge. Senate Democrats vulnerable in the 2014 midterms are turning up the heat.

Stephan Savoia/AP
President Obama speaks at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall about the federal health care law, Oct. 30, 2013. The Obama administration's apology tour over the problems with the Affordable Care Act – both the balky website and consumer anger over feeling misled about canceled health plans – culminated in the president's mea culpa to NBC News that aired Thursday evening.

President Obama is sorry. Vice President Joe Biden is sorry. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sorry.

The Obama administration’s apology tour over the problems with the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a., Obamacare – both the balky website and consumer anger over feeling misled about canceled health plans – culminated in the president’s mea culpa to NBC News that aired Thursday evening.

But that hardly alleviates the pressure. Beyond the predictable Republican outrage, Mr. Obama feels squeezed by key members of his own party, primarily Democratic senators who face tough reelection battles. Republicans need only a net gain of six seats to retake the Senate next November. Nine Democratic-held seats are vulnerable, compared with only two Republican-held seats, in the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s ratings.

In the NBC interview, Obama apologized for inadequately explaining to consumers that his oft-stated promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” came with major caveats.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me,” Obama told Chuck Todd.

Since the uproar over canceled plans erupted last week, the president has qualified his promise, explaining that the law grandfathered in only plans that hadn’t changed since the law passed in March 2010 – even if they are “subpar.” Any altered plans had to meet the higher standards for coverage contained in the law, and because there’s a lot of churn in the individual health-insurance market, millions of Americans are getting cancellation notices.

Some are experiencing sticker shock over the cost of the new plans they’re being offered. Some consumers will qualify for subsidies via the health-insurance exchanges, based on their incomes, but others won’t.

“I've assigned my team to see what we can do to close some of the holes and gaps in the law – because my intention is to lift up and make sure the insurance that people buy is effective,” Obama said.

A group of 16 Democratic senators – many of them up for reelection, some of them vulnerable to losing – met with the president and vice president at the White House on Wednesday. It was a chance to vent, and it allowed them to tell voters they’ve placed their demands at Obama’s feet.

"The American people are frustrated with the White House’s botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and I am too,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas said in a statement. “In the meeting, I told the President and Vice President three things: 1) fix the website immediately 2) address the problems with the law and 3) hold the individuals in charge accountable for these mistakes. I won’t let up until these problems are fixed."

On Thursday, Senator Pryor – who faces a fierce election challenge from Republican US Rep. Tom Cotton – announced support for a bill offered by another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. That bill, called the Keeping Affordable Care Act Promise Act, would allow people to keep their existing plans.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire, also up for reelection but less vulnerable than some colleagues, is proposing an extension of the enrollment period for health coverage beyond March 31. A Senate Democrat not up for reelection, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois have introduced legislation that would delay by one year the penalty for failing to have insurance.

In Louisiana on Friday, the president again acknowledged the shortcomings of HealthCare.gov, the online marketplace where Americans who need health insurance are supposed to be able to shop for coverage. "I wanted to go in and fix it myself, but I don't write code," he said. In a sign of how sensitive the botched rollout of Obamacare has become, Senator Landrieu did not appear with Obama as he spoke to a crowd of 650 at the Port of New Orleans.

In the NBC interview, Obama’s defense suggested that he would keep selling his health-insurance reform to the public, apparently in the hope that people would see over time that they will wind up with a plan that’s better than what they had, and may get a federal subsidy.

But if the bipartisan calls for legislative action grow louder, it may be hard for the administration to resist some tweaks to the law – either through Congress or by executive action. In Atlanta on Friday, Secretary Sebelius was asked what steps the administration might be considering, but she said there was no specific plan at the moment, according to CNN.

One aspect on which the administration is adamant is that the mandate to carry coverage not be delayed. The mandate is crucial to the law’s success, say experts on health insurance. Insurers are now required to cover all comers, including people with preexisting medical conditions. If the healthy remain uninsured and pay a penalty, while the unhealthy sign up for coverage, insurers could go into what’s called a “death spiral.” 

Not all Senate Democrats are in panic mode. Chris Coons of Delaware, considered safe for reelection next year, called on his colleagues to give the Obama administration some breathing room. On Thursday, the top Democrat in Congress, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, also called for a break on the criticism, while hinting that some changes to the law may be in order. 

"Obamacare is a wonderful piece of legislation," Senator Reid said on the Senate floor. "Let's make it better. Stop carping about this. Get over it. It's the law. It's the legacy of Barack Obama and always will be."

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