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Democrats brace for Obamacare fallout

Now that voters are finding out what’s in the bill, Democratic lawmakers scramble to distance themselves from the president’s healthcare law


Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., gives the Obamacare rollout an F-minus. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Democrats brace for Obamacare fallout

WASHINGTON—During the push to pass Obamacare in 2010, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pleaded, “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.”

More than three years later, America is finding out what’s in the mammoth new government program: a dysfunctional website, millions of canceled insurance polices, and higher premiums.

Despite this disastrous rollout, Pelosi on Nov. 17 refused to back away from Obamacare.

“I will tell you this: Democrats stand tall in support of the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

But 39 House Democrats didn’t agree with Pelosi’s message to stand tall. Likely worried about the effect Obamacare may have on their reelection chances, those Democrats broke party ranks and voted for a Republican-led measure allowing individuals to keep their current insurance plans. It was the largest revolt of Democrats on a congressional vote this year.

Many congressional Democrats in competitive districts likely would be grateful this Thanksgiving week if Obamacare would just go away.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., gave the Obamacare rollout a grade of F-minus.

“Heads should have rolled in my opinion,” said Rahall, who won his district with 54 percent of the vote in 2012.

Over in the Senate, Democrats, many already facing tough reelection fights, are lining up to sponsor bills changing the healthcare law many of them once championed.

Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., authored bills addressing the millions of canceled plans. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wrote legislation delaying the penalty assessed to individuals who don’t buy insurance. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has a bill extending the enrollment period beyond the current March 31 deadline. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, pushed legislation creating a new “copper plan” healthcare option.

Many of the bills do little more than provide their authors political cover heading into their 2014 reelection campaigns. But with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refusing to bring Obamacare bills backed by Democrats to the floor, the maneuverings highlight a fracturing party. That fissure could burst open if Obamacare continues to falter and party leaders balk at changes.

Democrats are crossing their fingers that the disastrous HealthCare.gov website will shed its glitch-filled reputation in the coming days. But the White House has spent the past week backing away from an earlier pledge that the website would be running smoothly by the end of November. The latest talking point is that it will be working for the “majority” of people who log on.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney quantified that statement by saying the White House would accept a success rate of eight out of 10 users, meaning that 20 percent of its consumers would still face problems. Republicans have pointed out that Amazon.com probably would not be pleased with a similar result.

Democrats saying they want to “fix” Obamacare surely have been reading the latest polls. Support for President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan dropped 16 points in one month among Democrats. Nearly four in 10 voters said they would likely oppose a congressional candidate who supports Obamacare. In Montana, where key Obamacare backer and Democrat Sen. Max Baucus is retiring, just 14 percent of voters think the healthcare law has been a success. While in Ohio, a key battleground state, a poll released today shows that 59 percent oppose Obamacare and 45 percent say they expect their quality of healthcare to be worse one year from now.

Nationally, just 7 percent of Americans think the law is working. A Gallup poll seven years ago found 69 percent of Americans believed the government should be responsible for healthcare. But a new Gallup poll now shows that 56 percent of Americans believe government should not be in charge of healthcare.

And a majority of Americans object to an element of Obamacare that has long worried social and religious conservatives. The Family Research Council and the Alliance for Defending Freedom released a poll Tuesday showing 59 percent of likely voters oppose the Obamacare mandate requiring certain contraceptive coverage for women that include drugs that can destroy a human embryo.

Obama has tried to help his fellow Democrats by offering a one-year reprieve on the canceled polices. But many Democrats in closely divided districts and states are arguing that such an executive fiat isn’t enough.

“Members of Congress aren’t judged by administrative fixes; they’re judged by their voting records,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who added that there is a lot of “plain-speaking” going on between Democrats in Washington and the White House.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners also threw cold water on the president’s effort, arguing that his late change would undermine the marketplace and lead to higher premiums. Several states are declining to accept Obama’s option.

Meanwhile, Democrats are bracing for the next Obamacare bombshell. That likely will occur when a second Obama pledge crumbles. Despite the president’s oft-repeated promise that Americans could keep their doctors, there will be less choices in doctors and hospitals under Obamacare. In New Hampshire, 10 out of 26 major hospitals are excluded from Obamacare. Six hospitals in Maine and six hospitals in Kentucky are also being excluded. A medical group survey of about 48,000 physicians this fall found that less than 30 percent would join the Obamacare exchanges.

A second wave of policy cancellations are expected to hit next fall just in time for the midterm elections. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) predicts that up to two-thirds of small businesses would see policies canceled next year or be forced to send workers to the insurance exchanges created by the new law. As many as 100 million polices could be affected as businesses try to comply with Obamacare’s mandates, AEI predicts, as businesses weigh the option of offering more expensive plans for their employees that meet the government’s approval or dropping coverage altogether.

That information was timed to hit consumers next October, right before the elections. But in its latest kiss to congressional Democrats, the Obama administration last week moved the start date for Obamacare enrollment in 2014 from Oct. 15, 2014 until Nov. 15, or 11 days after the Nov. 4 elections.

Additional efforts to wipe Obamacare from voters’ memories came in the form of a 22-page strategy memo the White House gave Democrats in mid-November. It urged lawmakers to change the subject by talking about October’s government shutdown and the debt-ceiling debate.

But Republicans are not going to let Democrats rewind the clock or hide their support for Obamacare: The Republican National Committee on Nov. 20 invited Democrats to a mock Obamacare press conference that included a photo opportunity in front of a banner reading, “Eager and Proud to Run on Obamacare in 2014.”

Republicans also are making sure that voters don’t forget their anger over canceled polices and higher insurance premiums.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee just finished its best fundraising month of the year, raising $3.8 million. Americans for Prosperity in November launched a $4 million advertising campaign using Obamacare to target vulnerable congressional Democrats.

“I would imagine that there would be more and more attacks coming for months on end,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, a freshman representative and Democrat from Florida who beat incumbent Republican Allen West by fewer than 2,000 votes in 2012. Murphy voted in favor of the Republican-sponsored bill to allow consumers to keep their current insurance plans.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican from California who is one of Obamacare’s strongest critics on Capitol Hill, has launched a series of field hearings about the law at locations across the country.

At the first such congressional hearing in Gastonia, N.C., last Friday, five witnesses from the area related their own Obamacare nightmares.

Sherry Overbey testified that her monthly health insurance premium will jump from $395.60 to $713.11 beginning next year. She said that’s higher than her mortgage payment. It also comes with a higher deductible and higher out-of-pocket costs.

“Of course, I now have maternity coverage,” she testified. “I can also get free birth control pills, which at age 58, I am sure I will need both frequently.”

Jason Falls, an insurance agent from Kings Mountain, N.C., said he had “serious concerns” about Obamacare and that his friends and neighbors are “confused, concerned, mad, and fed up.”

“We can’t see the relationship between the value of the new plans and the dollars it takes from our families’ budget,” he added.

Falls told stories of an individual whose co-pay for medication will rise from $250 a month to nearly $600 a month under the new plan offered under Obamacare’s guidelines. He also testified about a couple who own a small business in North Carolina who are planning on limiting their production and sales to under $62,000 next year in order to qualify for Obamacare subsidies. According to Falls, they had a gross income of $64,000 last year, so they plan on contracting their business rather than growing it.

There will be similar field hearings across the country, including one in Arizona, in December.


Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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