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Sweet: Obama buys time with Obamacare fix

Updated: December 16, 2013 6:38AM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, confronting the failed launch of his historic health care plan and a broken pledge to consumers, bought himself some time Thursday for his system to work by allowing insurers to offer renewals of substandard policies for at least a year.

Obama made the move in the face of mounting political pressure, taking incoming fire from Democrats that was not friendly.

He dispatched his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and other top advisers to Capitol Hill on Thursday for a series of briefings and meetings intended to mollify as much as to inform angry Democratic lawmakers.

During a press conference to announce his fix, which would run past the 2014 mid-term elections, Obama was contrite, acknowledging his administration’s failure to manage the massive overhaul of the nation’s health insurance system — from the botched website that has not worked since it went live on Oct. 1 to the more profound failure to provide backup for people shocked to find themselves forced to shop for new coverage, an Obamacare byproduct the president and his team should have seen coming.

Obama has weathered many political and policy battles with Republicans who are dead set against him, but what makes this crisis different is that it is largely the fault of his own team, from the designers and contractors, to the staff and speechwriters who let him repeat a pledge that we now know could not have possibly been true — that if you like your health insurance, you can keep it under the Affordable Care Act.

Turning to that matter of trust, Obama said at the press conference he will have to earn it back from people who believed him.

“I think it’s legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular, and on a whole range of these issues in general. And that’s on me. I mean, we fumbled the rollout on this health care law,” Obama said.

Obama, who before the botched rollout compared his new system to buying products on Amazon, admitted, “Buying health insurance is never going to be like buying a song on iTunes.”

He also signaled that the troubled website may not be fully functional by the end of November, breaking a self-imposed deadline.

Incredible that his team is just now realizing that buying health insurance is one of life’s most difficult chores — even if it is for policies that are better than what they had.

“It’s just a much more complicated transaction. But I think we can continue to make it better — all of which is to say that on December 1st, November 30th, it will be a lot better, but there will still be some problems. Some of those will not be because of technological problems — although I’m sure that there will still be some glitches that have to be smoothed out. Some of it’s going to be how are we making this application process more user-friendly for folks,” Obama said.

Obama had to offer up something on Thursday because the GOP-run House — whose leaders are rooting for Obamacare to fail — is poised to vote Friday on a plan by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to let insurance companies sell their current policies not only to existing customers but to new ones as well. Allowing those new customers could gut Obamacare.

“I think the president did the right thing in order to respond to a problem faced by not too many people in this country that want to at least consider staying with their own plans,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told me.

“But I think those people need to go to the marketplace as soon as that website is fine, because I think they may do better than the insufficient plans that they had before. But in the meantime we can look at the big picture, which is going to put millions of people into health insurance that they have been denied because of pre-existing conditions,” she said.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., told me, “The president’s cure today was an appropriate first step. The problem is he needs a legislative cure as well. His problem there is, the Republicans in the House, they don’t want to cure the bill, they want to kill it.”

The framework of Obama’s temporary fix is fragile — and which health insurance policies individuals may be able to purchase in the coming weeks will depend heavily on decisions by state insurance regulators and private insurance companies.

The State of Illinois offered only a vague statement after Obama’s announcement, saying that Illinois Insurance Director Andrew Boron, et al., are “closely monitoring the situation.”

Obama’s plan does not force anyone to do anything. He has punted, sending his problem from Washington to the states.

Gov. Pat Quinn, what’s your move?


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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