Despite Fumbles, Obama Defends Health Care Law
By JACKIE CALMES and JONATHAN WEISMAN
DALLAS — President Obama strongly defended his signature health care law on Wednesday in the largest state that has refused to participate, as rattled Senate Democrats called for changing or delaying key parts of the new health coverage.
Against a backdrop of closer-than-expected election results in Virginia that some attributed to opposition to the health law, Mr. Obama again expressed regret for the troubles at the federal website that have prevented many people from enrolling for insurance. But he said the Texas government — by refusing to take federal funds and expand Medicaid eligibility — had left more than a million people uninsured. He promised to get problems with the health program fixed.
“As challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as HealthCare.gov may be sometimes, we are going to get this done,” Mr. Obama told about 150 volunteers and paid navigators helping in enrollment who had gathered to meet him at Temple Emanu-El here. “We’re on the right side of history.”
The president made his remarks as leaders of both parties carefully examined the results of Tuesday’s elections, searching for indications of what went wrong and how they could perform better next year.
In trying to rebuild confidence in the new health care law, Mr. Obama must also appeal to Democratic officials worried about the poor rollout one year before members of Congress must face voters.
The increasing concern of Democrats, combined with steady criticism from Republicans over the law’s rollout, has the White House caught in political crossfire. The administration has tried to reassure allies that the flaws will be corrected and that it is reaching out to consumers whose plans are being canceled because they do not meet the new law’s requirements.
Before flying to Texas, Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met privately with 16 Democratic senators, many in tough re-election bids next year, to hear their frustrations. Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska and one of next year’s most embattled incumbents, emerged from the meeting to blast the administration’s “mismanagement.”
“It’s absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can’t deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website,” he said.
That the Democratic victory in the Virginia governor’s race was by a smaller margin than predicted in polls is likely to exacerbate those party tensions. According to exit polling conducted by Edison Research, 53 percent of voters there opposed the health care law. Of those, 81 percent voted for the Republican candidate, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, who lost to Terry McAuliffe, 48 percent to 45.5 percent.
“You have to wonder what would have happened if there was another week of this Obamacare fiasco,” said Brian Moran, a former state legislator and past Democratic Party chairman in Virginia. Mr. Moran said Democrats would have to embrace changes to the president’s health care law in the months ahead. “There are political dangers if there are not some changes made,” he warned.
Testifying again on Capitol Hill, the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, said she and her colleagues had identified “a couple of hundred functional fixes” that must be made to HealthCare.gov. But she turned aside calls for a delay in major provisions of the law, despite a flurry of legislative proposals from Democrats.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana introduced legislation this week to force insurance companies to reissue the health plans they have been canceling by the thousands. Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana is gathering supporters for a bill to redefine part-time workers under the law. On Wednesday, Mr. Donnelly, along with Senate co-sponsors Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, wrote to budget negotiators calling on the bill to be included in a budget plan due by Dec. 13.
Mr. Manchin is drafting his own bill to delay the levying of penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, is pressing the White House to extend the insurance enrollment period.
Even Democrats who have kept largely quiet are beginning to vent. Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, left the White House meeting and promptly aired his concerns about the website, about the administration’s reluctance to extend the enrollment period and about online security and privacy protections.
“I urged the president again to extend the enrollment period to give consumers enough time to make an informed decision about their family’s health insurance options,” Mr. Udall said. “I also told the president that, for the Affordable Care Act to succeed, consumers need to be confident their personal information is secure. We need to do everything in our power to protect the online marketplace from hackers and cyberattacks.”
Republicans relished the Democratic frenzy after both parties have refused to tamper with the law for different reasons — Republicans not wanting to be seen as improving a law they want overturned and Democrats reluctant to open the law to Republican attacks.
“We have here a bunch of, shall I say, foxhole conversions,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “What’ll be really interesting to see in the Senate is the number of Democrats in red states who are up in ’14 and what they start demanding from the majority leader and the administration.”
In the wake of the Virginia election, national Democratic Party officials flatly dismissed Republican assertions that the results were close because of the health care law. According to the exit poll, 27 percent of Virginia voters identified health care as the most important issue in the race, and of those, Mr. Cuccinelli won 49 percent to Mr. McAuliffe’s 45 percent, a fairly close margin. Far more voters, 45 percent, said the economy was the top issue, and they broke for the Republican by about the same spread.
By contrast, the 20 percent who identified abortion as the most important issue went for Mr. McAuliffe by 25 points.
The health care law “is not as toxic as they want people to believe,” said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
Attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act, as the health care law is known, have held fairly stable over the past two years, with slightly more Americans holding a negative view. The latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, conducted Oct. 17-23, showed 44 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable view and 38 percent a favorable view — nearly the same numbers as in September, before news reports of the troubled rollout of the federal health insurance exchange began. Democratic campaign veterans in Virginia said the results should serve as a warning to candidates next year about the staying power of the health care issue.
One strategist said the health care problems “softened up Democrats in the suburban areas” and “definitely took the wind out of our sails at the end.”