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Obama Seeking Fix for Canceled Policy Holders

Obama Seeking Fix for Canceled Policy Holders

By Alexis Simendinger - November 8, 2013

President Obama, reversing course Thursday, said he is exploring whether executive, administrative changes could allow millions of Americans to keep health insurance temporarily, even if their plans don’t comply with new standards that begin Jan. 1 under the Affordable Care Act.

For weeks, the president has defended the government’s aim to move Americans who buy their own insurance into more comprehensive plans that cover hospitalizations, preventative health screenings and other benefits required by the 2010 law.

But his confident assurances that millions of Americans impacted by the change could shop for better replacement coverage on HealthCare.gov were undermined by the federal website’s troubles, and the anxious demands from Democratic lawmakers that if he couldn’t fix the mess, they would act legislatively to alter the law.

A band of 15 Senate Democrats facing re-election next year met with the president at the White House Wednesday to make their displeasure crystal clear. Obama and his advisers agreed with the group that advocates of the law had a messaging problem, but a plan to repair the damage remained unsettled.

Republicans have marveled at the turn of events, chortling that the flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act did more to bring the law to the brink of a rewrite than any of the 46 House votes that failed to repeal it.

Democrats have said they are torn between the urgency of launching a state-based system meant to benefit 15 million uninsured Americans, and responding to protests from many middle-class people notified in recent weeks by insurers that Obamacare would make their policies extinct.

Chastened by the public and political backlash, and boxed in by his own words, Obama switched gears to empathize with those impacted by a confusing law, its imminent deadlines, the botched website and, in many cases, the portent of higher costs.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” Obama told NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd during a brief interview. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them, and we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

It is unclear if the Health and Human Services Department has the legal authority to re-interpret the law’s definition of insurance plans that are “grandfathered” and could continue to exist, perhaps temporarily, under certain circumstances, even if those plans don’t meet the law’s basic benefits standards. The president has resisted suggestions on both sides of the aisle in Congress to extend the law’s open enrollment period beyond March 31.

Those who received cancellation notices from their insurance companies could choose another plan, or shop in the new exchanges, but their insurance will expire Dec. 31. To remain insured on Jan. 1, they would need to find and buy new coverage by Dec. 15.

When the ACA was written, advocates sought to limit the number of consumers who could retain insurance plans the government deemed substandard -- plans sold by insurance companies to individuals who lacked the collective clout to bargain for better benefits at lower premiums and deductibles.

Obama said Thursday he wants to address, without legislation, what he now terms “a loophole” in his signature legislative achievement.

“Even though it only affects a small amount of the population, it means a lot to them, obviously, when they get this letter canceled,” he said. “I am deeply concerned about it, and I’ve assigned my team to see what can we do to close some of the holes and gaps in the law, because my intention is to lift up and make sure the insurance people buy is effective.”

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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