Humbled Obama unveils fix on US healthcare law

Photo: AFP

Barack Obama tried to ease the biggest crisis of his presidency on Thursday when he reversed a decision on his chaotic healthcare law meaning that millions of Americans will be able to renew coverage plans which would otherwise have been cancelled.


US President Barack Obama admitted on Thursday that he deserved to be "slapped around" over the turbulent debut of his new healthcare reform, acknowledging missteps and announcing a plan to help those seeing their current health plans cancelled because of it.

With his approval rating plummeting and fellow Democrats in open revolt, Obama promised to fix website and coverage failures that have hampered the rollout of the new law and are likely to be at the heart of the 2014 midterm elections.

A humbled Obama said he had "fumbled" the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and pledged to work hard to restore confidence in his reeling presidency.

"I hear you loud and clear," he told Americans, who are angry he did not deliver on his repeated promises over the past three years that those who liked their plans could keep them.

"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this healthcare law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," Obama said, speaking from the podium in the White House press room.

Up to insurers

Obama said health insurers could extend policies due to be cancelled because they do not comply with new minimum requirements under the law, effectively shifting responsibility for cancellations to the industry itself. The change would be good for just one year, though senior administration officials said it could be extended if problems persist.

But insurers were quick to complain that the fix could create new problems and lead to higher premiums.

“It’s far from clear whether this change in the law will have the desired effect for Obama,” FRANCE 24's Lorna Shaddick reported from Washington. “Insurance companies say that changing the rules now – when new health plans have already been rolled out and met the law’s requirements – could destabilise the market and actually lead to higher premiums for some people. They also say it's unclear how this new proposal on cancelled policies can be put into effect.”

Obama officials said companies must spell out how the policies which do not meet the legal requirements are substandard and what alternatives are available.

Technical glitches

Obama's rapid turnaround came in response to a growing chorus of disapproval from Republicans and fellow Democrats over the prospect of several million Americans having their policies cancelled.

The furore has reignited a broad debate about the benefits of the healthcare system overhaul that was enacted in 2010 in the face of considerable opposition from Republicans who view it as government overreach. It is the most sweeping social legislation since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid the 1960s, and Obama's biggest domestic policy achievement.

The October 1 rollout of the programme has been beset by technical glitches concerning the federal online insurance website that allows consumers to shop for policies. Obama told reporters on Thursday the troubled website would work for most people by the end of the month, and that users will see a "marked and noticeable" improvement because of fixes to the software and hardware that runs it.

'Just not fixable'

Whatever the impact on consumers, Obama's announcement on Thursday did nothing to quell Republican opposition to the scheme.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said it was time to scrap the law "once and for all." He said, "You can't fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare. It's just not fixable."

Most Democrats gave a measured but optimisitc response to the move. Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana described Obama's announcement as a good first step but "we'll probably need legislation to make it stick".

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also stopped short of a full endorsement of Obama's solution and said, "if we need to do more, we will".

Some Democrats believe that Obamacare will turn out to be a political winner in the long run.

"Voters, particularly in swing districts, would prefer a Democrat who promises to fix and improve the Affordable Care act to a Republican who is obsessed with repealing and gutting it," said Representative Steve Israel of New York, who heads the party's campaign committee.

The Affordable Care Act aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. It mandates that most Americans be enrolled for health coverage by March 31, 2014, or pay a fine.

Enrolment figures released by the administration on Wednesday indicated that only 106,000 people have enrolled for health plans through the exchanges, a tiny fraction of the hoped-for millions.

The low figure, while expected because of technical glitches on the government website, showed how far the administration has to go to build an individual market of millions of consumers in 2014 to keep the healthcare programme financially viable.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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