Call it “Obamacare Rollout, Take 2.”
At a White House event kicking off a three-week drive to promote the Affordable Care Act (ACA), after two horrific months of web crashes and an embarrassing broken promise, President Obama was careful Tuesday not to oversell his signature domestic initiative.
Mr. Obama touted the improvements to HealthCare.gov, which was able to handle 1 million visitors Monday without major problems, but also kept expectations of perfection at bay. There were no grandiose comparisons to Expedia or Amazon in his remarks in the utilitarian South Court Auditorium on the White House campus. No “Mission Accomplished” banner was hung overhead.
“Today, the website is working well for the vast majority of users,” said Obama, accompanied on stage by the usual bank of supporters. “More problems may pop up, as they always do when you're launching something new, and when they do we'll fix those too.”
It was a simple message to the applauding ACA fans in the hall – as well as the TV cameras in back, and to the Democrats and Republicans who are suiting up for the next round of battle over the initiative that could make or break Obama’s presidency. The message: Obamacare is back, and this president is back.
Whether Obama can recover from the HealthCare.gov fiasco and the flood of policy cancellations remains to be seen. His job approval is down to 40 percent, and his high personal popularity rating – once his Teflon -- has also dipped. But his administration made clear Tuesday that the president and his Democratic allies will use their megaphone every day between now and Dec. 23 (the deadline for Jan. 1 coverage) to refocus attention on the most popular aspects of the ACA and, they hope, inspire people to enroll.
On Wednesday, the focus will be the ACA provision that requires insurers to provide preventive care without copays. Thursday’s emphasis will be on preexisting conditions, which can no longer result in higher premiums or denied coverage. Friday’s focus will be on the declining growth in health spending.
Obama is also signaling that he’s not just about the health-reform law that colloquially bears his name. On Wednesday, he will deliver a speech on income inequality and the American dream at a Washington nonprofit – remarks that will tie in Obamacare.
“The president will discuss the steps he has taken to help reverse these trends, restore mobility, and increase economic security for every American, including the economic benefits of the Affordable Care Act,” a White House official said in a statement. “He will also offer a robust argument for further steps, like raising the minimum wage, that we should take as a nation in the near future.”
Raising the federal minimum wage is a long shot on Capitol Hill, but by bringing it up in his speech, Obama is signaling to liberals that he hears their message. The rise of the left, exemplified by Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor of New York, has added a new pressure point to Obama’s political calculations.
At the same time, he needs to keep more moderate Democrats with him as well. Tension over the ACA, especially Obama’s false promise that Americans could keep their plans if they liked them, threatened support for the law among Democrats on Capitol Hill – especially senators vulnerable in next year’s midterms, but also including House Democrats.
That tension has subsided, according to reports about a meeting two top White House aides had Tuesday with House Democrats.
But the Obama administration can hardly relax, with four months to go in open enrollment on the health-insurance exchanges and Republicans waiting to pounce at any bad news. Just as the Democrats have set up websites to tout positive stories about the ACA, Republicans have their own websites telling a different story – people losing access to doctors and hospitals they like, the sticker shock some are experiencing over next year’s insurance premiums, and continuing concerns about accuracy and security on HealthCare.gov.
At his briefing Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney pushed back especially hard at an article in The Washington Post that reported fully one-third of the forms being given to insurers about enrollees in HealthCare.gov has errors.
“That statistic that was cited in the newspaper today does not reflect at all the picture of what is happening right now,” Mr. Carney said.
He offered assurances that the contractor fixing the “back end” of the site and the insurers are working together to make sure the forms are accurate, going back to the start of enrollment on Oct. 1.
If the problem with the so-called “834 forms” is not fixed, people with new policies obtained via HealthCare.gov face the possibility of going to a doctor of hospital and being told they don’t have coverage. That’s another sort of Obamacare horror story the administration wants to head off at the pass.
Getting young adults to enroll in health coverage remains another challenge. A Gallup poll released Monday indicates that Americans aged 18 to 29 are the least familiar with the new law. Only 63 percent know about it.
Another Gallup poll, released Tuesday, found that 28 percent of uninsured Americans plan to pay the government fine rather than enroll in coverage. If enough Americans decline to enroll – particularly among the young and healthy – that will create an imbalance in the risk pool.
But in his Obamacare 2.0 speech on Wednesday, the president made clear he will spend the rest of his presidency putting the law solidly in place, if that’s what it takes.
“If I’ve got to fight another three years to make sure this law works, then that’s what I’ll do,” Obama said. “That’s what we’ll do,” he added, deputizing those in the audience to be his foot soldiers.
“If you’ve already got health insurance or you’ve already taken advantage of the Affordable Care Act, you’ve got to tell your friends, you’ve got to tell your family,” Obama said. “Tell your coworkers. Tell your neighbors.”
Obama, too, will continue his ACA outreach effort with young adults. On Wednesday, he will help kick off the White House Youth Summit, a gathering of “160 national and local young leaders with a broad reach in their communities to help get the word out to young Americans about how to enroll,” according to a statement from a White House official.