Democrats Didn’t Just Escape Blame for Obamacare

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 14 2013 7:08 PM

Promise Keepers

Obama’s press conference wasn’t the political cure-all Democrats are saying it was.

President Barack Obama speaks on the Affordable Care Act.
Obama announced his Affordable Care Act rule change on Thursday, but will it be enough to escape the "keep your plan" mess?

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Jeff Merkley walked toward the Senate Democrats’ afternoon meeting, and the reporters fell on him like starved dogs. The Oregon senator, who’s up for re-election next year but lacks a strong challenger, had been a shock endorser of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s bill to force insurers to extend the cheap plans that had been scrapped for noncompliance with the Affordable Care Act. President Obama had just finished telling Americans that he had fixed the problem—he’d gone ahead and changed a rule, allowing the plans to continue for a year. So what did Merkley think?

“It doesn’t go as far as I’d like to go,” he said, “but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.” He still liked that pesky Landrieu bill, because it honored his idea of Obamacare. “The concept was, when you came to the exchange, you could choose between the plan you had and the exchange without any limitation on the length you could keep the plan that you had.”

Some 70 minutes later, after White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough had briefed the Democrats on the new rule, Merkley re-emerged from the meeting. He was born again.

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“I really applaud the president for responding to our call,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the promise made was kept. He’s gone a long way towards that today. The point is, now, what we have to do is have all legislators team up and call on the insurance industry to offer their side of the bargain. I’ll certainly be calling on the insurance companies in Oregon to extend what they were offering.”

President Obama’s health care presser may be remembered as the “fumble” speech, or as the time he was so tangled on Obamacare that a question about the threat of a nuclear Iran became his life raft. But one of his goals, which partially succeeded, was to get his party back on the blame-the-insurers bandwagon. “The old individual market was not working well,” explained the president. He would be “requiring insurers to extend current plans to inform their customers about two things: One, what protections these renewed plans don't include. Number two, that the marketplace offers new options with better coverage and tax credits that might help you bring down the cost.”

Democrats are worried—correctly so!—that the cancellation letters about individual plans cannot be stopped. At best, if insurers defied all predictions and decided to re-offer the canceled plans, the president’s rule would lead them back to the shredder in one year.

“The Obama rule is short-term political posturing,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican who’s trying to rekindle support for his bill restoring canceled plans by revising it to save more plans that might be scrapped. “There’s very little we can do for people who’ve already got cancellation notices. There are people in the group plans whose policies will be renewing next year. If they have to comply with mandates that drive up the cost of health care, they’ll drop coverage. There’s the real danger—that’s when you see tens of millions of people getting dropped.”

But this is the world the Democrats created. They can’t expect to have an excuse for every canceled plan—the cancellation of less comprehensive plans is necessary for the law to work. So they’re going to follow in the president’s wake, pronounce the “if you like your plan” controversy settled, and place the onus for increased costs or dropped plans with insurers again.

“The president's honored his promise,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I think it was the right decision, and I think the important thing is that—you know, we're hearing about people who are getting cancellations. Most people who are delighted to be getting coverage that they could never get before aren't writing in because they're happy.”

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who like King doesn’t face re-election until 2018, emphasized that the White House needed to change its focus. “I think the administration's done enough,” he said. “And I think you get back to messaging to the American public all the benefits of this bill, rather than duplicating the administration's efforts with the legislation on the Senate floor.”

House Democrats, who are being jammed tomorrow with a vote on a Republican “keep your plan” bill, got their own Thursday meeting with McDonough. While Democrats met, their opposites spoke on the House floor, giving treacly, anger-making updates on the lives of constituents whose plans had been canceled. Yet Democrats left their meeting with a Merkley-esque spring in their steps; it was time to explain, again, that the heartless cancellations were all up to the heartless insurers. “Requiring the insurance people to tell people what they’re not getting covered is part of it,” said Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen.

“We can’t force anybody to do anything!” insisted Washington Rep. Jim McDermott. “One of the big issues here that nobody’s talking about is that we’re trying to make a change to insurance at the national level, when it’s always been regulated at the state level. This is because of insurance companies canceling policies, changing them. The churning in the individual market has been going on as long as I’ve been in medicine, 30 years.”

Why should that sooth the Democrats? Well, there was an election in 2012, too. Plenty of insurers drove up the costs of their plans. The party did fairly well anyway. In the base case, post–“keep your plan” scenario, some of the extinct plans will be resurrected, but new premiums for those and other plans will be unveiled right before the midterms. Democrats can’t stop the prices from going up. They can try to stop people from blaming their party for the sticker shock.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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