Obama Apologizes, Offers Fix To Insurance Cancellations

President Obama has acknowledged the fumbled rollout of his signature health care law has hurt his credibility and that of fellow Democrats. He offered a minor change to the law in hopes of calming Democratic nerves, and beating back bigger changes proposed by House Republicans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The Affordable Care Act was never really designed to guarantee that all Americans could keep their health insurance plans. In fact, the law was intended to upgrade and standardize many plans that the law's authors called inadequate.

INSKEEP: But that's not how President Obama described it. And so now, the president is moving to make good on his often-repeated promise that if you like your plan, you can keep it. The change would allow insurance companies to extend individual health policies for one more year. They can do this even if the policies do not meet the law's requirements.

MONTAGNE: In a moment, we'll ask about the practicalities of the change. First, though, NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the political pressure that led to that change.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: With support for his health care law hemorrhaging and threatening to drain the life from the rest of his agenda, President Obama pulled out a Band-Aid. It's designed to give temporary relief to people who've received frightening notices that their individual health insurance policies are being canceled.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans, particularly after assurances they heard from me that if they had a plan that they liked, they could keep it.

HORSLEY: Insurance companies will now have the option of extending those individual policies, even if they don't comply with the law. While the White House believes many customers will find better coverage on the government's new insurance website, technical problems with the site have so far prevented many people from shopping or signing up.

OBAMA: And 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.

HORSLEY: The president's approval ratings have fallen to an all-time low since the botched rollout of the insurance exchange. What's more, a new Quinnipiac poll found for the first time, a majority of Americans say Obama is not honest and trustworthy.

In a lengthy White House news conference yesterday, the president called the criticism of his performance legitimate. After all, the health care law is his signature initiative. And incompetent execution makes it that much harder for Democrats to justify government intervention elsewhere. Obama says the problem-plagued website, and the failure to adequately protect people from policy cancellations, amounted to two fumbles in a big game. But, he insists, the game's not over.

OBAMA: I am very frustrated, but I'm also somebody who, if I fumble the ball, you know, I'm going to wait until I get the next play; and then I'm going to try to run as hard as I can, and do right by the team.

HORSLEY: Yesterday's White House audible was partly an effort to reassure the president's Democratic teammates, many of whom have grown nervous about the health care playbook. According to that same Quinnipiac poll, Democrats have lost a nine-point advantage in congressional contests since the insurance website debuted.

OBAMA: There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats - whether they're running or not - because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin.

HORSLEY: If Obamacare's problems are a handicap for Democrats, they're a big opportunity for Republicans, who are still trying to recover from their own missteps with last month's government shutdown. Republican House Speaker John Boehner tried to capitalize on public frustration with the health care law.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: When it comes to Obamacare, it's clear that the American people simply can't trust this White House.

HORSLEY: The House is set to vote today on a plan that would go further than the president's Band-Aid, and allow insurance companies to keep selling stripped-down policies to new customers. That's potentially more disruptive to the government's new insurance exchange. But to Boehner and his GOP colleagues, that's a plus.

BOEHNER: You can't fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare. This is going to destroy the best health care delivery system in the world.

HORSLEY: Obama countered yesterday that the U.S. health care system had plenty of problems before the Affordable Care Act. Many people lost coverage once they got sick, and tens of millions had no health insurance at all. Even with all of its recent glitches, the president said, he won't walk away from the health care overhaul.

OBAMA: I make no apologies for us taking this on because somebody, sooner or later, had to do it. I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's confident a year from now, people will say the health care law is working well, even as he admits his team should have done a better job on Day 1.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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