WASHINGTON – Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday.
The decision was designed to ease the impact on millions of consumers who have received cancellation notices in recent weeks, and also to try to redeem a presidential promise that anyone who wanted to keep his coverage under the law would be allowed to do so.
An announcement was expected in late morning.
Officials said the president would announce that insurers could continue to sell existing individual policies to current customers for 2014, even in cases of plans that had been ruled inadequate.
Insurers would be required to notify consumers that alternatives exist under “Obamacare,” and also to specify the areas in which current plans fall short of the coverage required in the law.
At the same time, the plans would be closed to anyone not currently enrolled, marking a difference with legislation that House Republicans intend to put to a vote on Friday.
Obama has been under enormous pressure from congressional Democrats to give ground on the cancellation issue under the health care overhaul, a program likely to be at the center of next year’s midterm elections for control of the House and Senate.
The decision marks an abrupt switch in position.
Only last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a Senate panel she doubted that retroactively permitting insurers to sell canceled policies “can work very well since companies are now in the market with an array of new plans. Many have actually added consumer protections in the last three-and-a-half years.”
Pending the president’s announcement, the administration had decided to permit insurance companies to continue the sale of individual policies that had been in effect on the date “Obamacare” was enacted in 2010, but not afterward.
At the same time, the administration is promising improvements in a federal website so balky that enrollments in October totaled fewer than 27,000 in 36 states combined. The administration had said in advance the enrollment numbers would fall far short of initial expectations. After weeks of highly publicized technical woes, they did.
Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials had projected – and a small fraction of the millions who have received private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.
The administration said an additional 1 million people have been found eligible to buy coverage in the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, which covers low-income people.
Republicans were unmoved.
“Even with the administration’s Enron-like accounting, fewer people have signed up for Obamacare nationwide than the 280,000 who’ve already lost their plan in Kentucky as a result of Obamacare mandates,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.
Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program’s future. “We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,” said Health and Sebelius, who is in charge of the program.
“Even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling,” she added.
Despite the expressions, the White House worked to reassure anxious Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago over Republican opposition as strong now as it was then.
Senate Democrats arranged a closed-door meeting for midday Thursday in the Capitol with White House officials, who held a similar session Wednesday with the House rank and file. Ahead of that meeting, Obama planned to speak from the White House about new efforts to help Americans receiving insurance cancellation notices.
So far, five Senate Democrats are on record in support of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to make sure everyone can keep their present coverage if they want to. The bill would require insurance companies to continue offering existing policies, even if they fall short of minimum coverage requirements in the law.
The measure has little apparent chance at passage, given that it imposes a new mandate on the insurance industry that Republicans will be reluctant to accept.
At the same time, a vote would at least permit Democrats to say they have voted to repair some of the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, as many appear eager to do.
In a statement, Landrieu said Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were now supporting the legislation, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. All but Feinstein are on the ballot next year.
Across the Capitol, majority Republicans in the House set a vote for Friday on legislation to permit insurance companies to continue selling existing policies that have been ordered scrapped because they fall short of coverage standards in the law.
While House passage of the measure is assured, each Democrat will be forced to cast a vote on the future of a program that Republicans have vowed to place at the center of next year’s campaign.
Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who voted for the initial Obama health care bill, said Thursday that members of his caucus want an opportunity to go on the record in support of allowing people to keep the insurance they had.
Doyle told MSNBC in an interview that at a White House meeting Wednesday, House Democrats told Obama about “the frustration level that many of us have” with the health care roll-out.
Doyle said Democrats warned Obama that “if you don’t give us something by Friday” to fix the insurance cancellation problem, then many Democrats are likely to vote for the pending House bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, which would accomplish that goal.
The promise of keeping coverage was Obama’s oft-stated pledge when the legislation was under consideration, a calling card since shredded by the millions of cancellations mailed out by insurers.
Obama apologized last week for the broken promise, but aides said at the time the White House was only considering administration changes, rather than new legislation.
By David Espo
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Julie Pace contributed to this report.