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Labor Leaders, WH Discuss Obamacare Fixes

Labor Leaders, WH Discuss Obamacare Fixes

By Alexis Simendinger - August 30, 2013

Pressure to fix the Affordable Care Act was a topic of conversation among top labor leaders and senior White House officials this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Obama aides confirmed Thursday. But those involved have been reluctant to say more.

"We were talking about health care, and we'll continue to talk about health care to try to solve problems," Trumka said during a reporters’ roundtable Thursday.

The AFL leader, along with James Hoffa, head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and other labor representatives met Tuesday with President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough. The visitors declined to chat with reporters about the meeting as they exited the West Wing.

“I was just told internally that we have no comment on that,” Teamsters spokesman Galen Monroe told RCP Thursday.

“We’re not going to flesh out anything further beyond what the White House might wish to chance re: health care conversations,” AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser added in a similar email.

A White House official, speaking on background, told RCP the president did not attend the meeting.

The Affordable Care Act’s unintended consequences since its passage need to be repaired by the administration and by Congress, Trumka said during an interview with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Offering one example pulled from recent news reports, he said employers are creating more part-time positions to escape the statutory mandate to provide health insurance to full-time workers.

“That is obviously something that no one intended,” Trumka said. “That’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said, “and I’m sure that we’ll continue to work on it.”

Calling the health care law “a major step in the right direction,” Trumka repeated Obama’s concession that any major statute in recent memory has included “glitches” that had to eventually be ironed out by the executive and legislative branches.

Organized labor was largely behind the law when it passed in 2010, but also backed a public insurance option that failed to capture enough support in the Senate. In July, Hoffa and the heads of two other major unions wrote to Democratic congressional leaders outlining why they feared the health law could “shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40-hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.”

“We believe that there are common-sense corrections that can be made within the existing statute that will allow our members to continue to keep their current health plans and benefits just as you and the president pledged,” they wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Unless changes are made, however, that promise is hollow.”

The July letter, published by the Wall Street Journal, said organized labor had lobbied the administration for regulatory fixes since the law’s enactment -- and struck out.

“Since the ACA was enacted, we have been bringing our deep concerns to the administration, seeking reasonable regulatory interpretations to the statute that would help prevent the destruction of non-profit health plans,” they wrote. “As you both know first-hand, our persuasive arguments have been disregarded and met with a stone wall by the White House and the pertinent agencies. This is especially stinging because other stakeholders have repeatedly received successful interpretations for their respective grievances. Most disconcerting of course is … [the] huge accommodation for the employer community -- extending the statutorily mandated 'December 31, 2013’ deadline for the employer mandate and penalties.”

The White House has been eager to mute leading Democrats who appear poised to break ranks on health care amid a clearly difficult period of implementation this fall.

Republicans gleefully seized upon a Democratic senator’s assessment that the law’s rollout was “a train wreck.” House conservatives have voted close to 40 times to repeal “Obamacare,” sparking sharp rebukes from Obama. Republicans cannot agree on a set of policies that would take the law’s place, but their mantra to repeal it is now part of conservative doctrine.

Nevertheless, polls consistently show three things: Americans are critical of the law; they lack a detailed understanding of its provisions and how the law impacts them; and a majority say they would rather see the law fixed than repealed.

Trumka agreed that Democratic candidates in midterm elections next year will be challenged by Republicans to defend the law’s provisions, including some key requirements delayed by the Obama administration as the government attempts to get state-based health insurance marketplaces established beginning Oct. 1. Echoing some Democratic pollsters, Trumka said the GOP enthusiasm about repealing the statute and preventing its implementation offered Democrats an opening to defend its benefits.

“Could it cost candidates, if not explained properly? Yes,” Trumka said. “However, a good candidate’s going to take that and make it a real plus, because remember this: It’s done a lot of good things for people.”

The president is expected to deliver a health care speech next month, and Obama asked former President Clinton to help explain the law’s policy details during an event in Arkansas Sept. 4.

Asked how Obama could improve the administration’s much-criticized communications about the law, Trumka said, “Talk to people more, that’s all it is. Talk about the benefits of it, and be willing to listen. … Look at it as a solving process, and understand that listening is as important as talking.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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