WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The growing pressure on President Barack Obama to adjust his problem-plagued healthcare law seemed to boil over on Tuesday, as leaders of Obama’s Democratic Party called on him to allow a change in the law so that Americans who are happy with their health plans could keep them.
In what became the clearest sign yet of Democrats’ increasing anxiety over the troubled rollout of the healthcare law, former President Bill Clinton told the web magazine Ozymandias that Obama should support such a change to fulfill a promise he and his administration have made to Americans for years.
“I personally believe, even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton told the magazine.
The comments were significant coming from Clinton, perhaps the most popular figure in the Democratic Party and a longtime supporter of efforts to help millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans obtain coverage for health care.
Since the 2010 Affordable Care Act went into effect on October 1, millions of Americans have discovered their current plans were being canceled because the plans did not meet minimum coverage levels required by the new law, also known as Obamacare.
Amid criticism that he had broken his promise to those who want to keep their old health plans, Obama apologized last week for not being more clear in his statements about the law.
But the apology did not do much to tamp down a wave of criticism of the president. That criticism – combined with the ongoing problems of the HealthCare.gov that have kept untold numbers of Americans from signing up for coverage under the new law – appeared to push at least some Democrats to a breaking point on Tuesday.
Hours after Clinton’s comments, the U.S. Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said that although the White House has long resisted alterations to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should be open to “constructive changes” to improve the law also known as Obamacare.
Another influential senator, California’s Dianne Feinstein, issued a statement shortly afterward, saying that she would join Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, in sponsoring a bill that would allow Americans to keep their current insurance plans, even if the plans do not meet the new law’s standards for coverage.
“Too many Americans are struggling to make ends meet,” Feinstein said in a statement. “We must ensure that in our effort to reform the healthcare system, we do not allow unintended consequences to go unaddressed.”
For Republicans who opposed Obamacare and have long been critical of virtually every aspect of the law and the administration’s promotion of it, Tuesday’s message was: I told you so.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said the comments from Democrats signaled “a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage.”
Republican House leaders have scheduled a vote for later this week on a bill offered by Republican Fred Upton of Michigan that is similar to the Senate bill co-sponsored by Landrieu and Feinstein.
Landrieu is among a dozen Democratic senators for whom fixing Obamacare is politically urgent because they face tough reelection campaigns next year.
‘THROWING THE BABY OUT’
White House spokesman Jay Carney, commenting before Feinstein’s announcement, said Tuesday that Upton’s House bill would cause problems for insurers who were trying to sell plans that met the basic standards of the new law.
“We do not see that as fixing the problem – we see that as throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Carney said. “That would cause more problems and create more problems, and do more harm than any good.”
Carney also said the administration is searching for a way to help those facing cancellations. He did not provide details.
The House vote – and the potential for a similar vote in the Democrat-led Senate on the Landrieu/Feinstein plan – mean that Democrats likely will have to cast another vote on the healthcare law before next year’s midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power in Congress.
ENROLLMENT REPORT DUE
Beyond the flap over canceled coverage and the website’s problems, the administration has acknowledged that the first report of enrollment in the healthcare program – due later this week – will be underwhelming.
The Wall Street Journal has reported fewer than 50,000 Americans were able to sign up for new Obamacare health insurance plans in 36 states in October through HealthCare.gov. The administration would not confirm the number, but it has said that enrollment data will be released this week.
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that most Americans at least be enrolled for health insurance by March 31 or pay a fine. Americans must enroll by December 15 for coverage that begins January 1.
The paltry enrollments and doubts about whether HealthCare.gov will be fixed by the end of November, as promised by the White House, have intensified pressure to find alternatives or extend the enrollment period beyond March 31.
Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who also faces a tough re-election bid in 2014, told reporters she is asking federal investigators to look into the design and contracting for HealthCare.gov.
In recent weeks, Hagan announced her support for a two-month extension of the open enrollment period for individuals seeking health insurance on Obamacare’s new market exchanges, along with a similar delay in penalties for failing to sign up in time.
So far, the administration has rejected the idea of such delays, even while conceding that fixing the website is a challenge.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Thomas Ferraro, Roberta Rampton, Caroline Humer, John Whitesides- Editing by Karey Van Hall, David Lindsey and Grant McCool)