WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama relented Thursday to pressure from the public and his own party and changed one of the bedrock requirements of the new health care law to fulfill his promise to allow people to keep their insurance plans if they want.
While the move was aimed at solving a problem that was threatening the president’s credibility and public faith in the law, it raised a slew of new questions, including whether insurers would adjust, whether millions of customers would pay higher premiums and whether states would make it available.
The president made the change at a White House news conference that quickly turned from a specific policy announcement into a nearly hourlong deconstruction of broader flaws with the health care law and Obama’s responsibility for its early failures.
The president was contrite and his admissions were many — he conceded that he was left in the dark about aspects of the crowning achievement of his presidency. He acknowledged that he and his advisers underestimated how hard it would be to sell insurance over a website. He could not guarantee that the website would work well for everyone by the end of the month. He allowed that federal government rules were an impediment. And he lamented the political problems he caused for members of his own party.
“There have been times where I thought we were . . . slapped around a little bit unjustly. This one’s deserved, all right? It’s on us,” Obama said regarding the policy cancellation issue, which contradicted his repeated promises that people would be able to keep insurance plans they liked.
Obama said insurance companies could continue for another year to offer health plans sold to individuals and small businesses that do not meet requirements under the new law that set minimum standards for the benefits that policies must cover.
Individual policies have long been a problematic part of the insurance market, with higher prices than most group plans, lower benefits and a tendency to cut off people when they get sick. The health care law tried to address this problem by directing Americans who rely on individual policies to buy coverage through the new insurance marketplaces — and by defining the set of essential benefits.
Under the new rules, people may renew individual and small-group policies, which otherwise would have ended at New Year’s, until Oct. 1 — allowing them to stay in effect through September 2015. Obama said the administration will insist that insurance companies that continue to sell policies that do not comply with the new law inform consumers about “what protections these renewed plans don’t include” and alert customers to potentially better and more affordable insurance in the new federal and state marketplaces.
The president’s remarks came as a number of recent polls illuminated the escalating problems that he and Democrats face. A new Gallup poll released Thursday shows disapproval of the Affordable Care Act has risen from 47 percent just a couple of weeks ago to a high of 55 percent. At the same time, Obama’s approval ratings have dropped, hovering between the high 30s and low 40s.
The new proposal appeared to strengthen the president’s position with Democratic lawmakers, including those in the House who will vote Friday on a Republican bill that would let people keep their existing policies for a year and also allow new customers to buy them even though they don’t conform to the new law.
“For now, the president’s actions are sufficient,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told reporters. Not all House Democrats were convinced. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said the plan was “a start” but said she will vote for the Republican proposal.
In his news conference, Obama described the Oct. 1 launch of the federal health insurance marketplace as “rough” and cautioned that the online enrollment system that has been plagued by glitches may not be fully fixed by the end of the month, as his aides had been predicting for nearly three weeks.
Obama described both the cancellations on the individual market and the website rollout as “two fumbles . . . on a big game — but the game’s not over,” he said. He vowed that the nation would not return to what he called the broken health-care system that existed before the Affordable Care Act.
For some, the president’s announcement raised more questions. Deborah Persico, a 58-year-old D.C. lawyer, received a letter that her plan was going to be canceled in October 2014. She’s not sure if the president’s “fix” will mean her plan will be extended through January 2015, and in any event, she would still have to shop on the city’s new health insurance exchange, where a comparable plan comes with a higher premium, higher deductible and higher out-of-pocket cost.
“It’s just a temporary delay of the inevitable. You’re still going to lose your policy,” she said. “A fix would have been, ‘If you like your policy you can keep your policy, period.’ This is just, ‘If you like your policy, you can keep your policy for a year.’ ”