Democrats are running for political cover from ObamaCare.
With the president's broken promise about people being able to keep insurance plans they liked fueling renewed anger over the health care law, Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from the White House and find a political fix to the dissonance. The administration, too, has endorsed a change on that front, announcing on Thursday a one-year punt on phasing out insurance plans that don't meet ObamaCare's tougher standards.
Yet the hasty retreat could lead Democrats to play right into the GOP's hands or, worse, wind up greatly undermining the Affordable Care Act itself.
With the 2014 midterm elections around the corner, congressional Democrats are, understandably, worried about marching in lockstep with a president whom a majority of voters no longer trust. And by exerting pressure on the White House, they've now secured a change to ObamaCare that should alleviate that concern in the short-term.
Still, the White House's proposed fix to Obama's false claim and the alternative suggestions that have been floated on Capitol Hill (which could still come up for political point-scoring votes) are dubious.
Though the administration has announced its own fix, House Republicans are likely to bring up their own plan as a way to continue pressing the issue. And Democrats could still pursue a slightly different alternative of their own that's pending in the Senate to give vulnerable lawmakers more cover.
— Todd Zwillich (@toddzwillich) November 14, 2013
In addition to the administration's solution, the House will vote Friday on a Republican bill drafted by Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) called the "Keep Your Health Plan Act." The bill would allow insurance companies to keep offering plans that would otherwise be lost to ObamaCare's tougher standards, and to keep selling them outside the exchange marketplace to new customers for one year.
Except the bill would not fix ObamaCare, but rather work to hobble the exchange's long-term health. The system can only work by pushing enough people into the marketplace, spreading risk, and driving down premiums. By allowing people to stay on old plans, the exchanges would be "drained of millions of (previously insured and hence generally healthier) people whom Obama wanted to compel to buy exchange-based plans by banning their preferred plans," wrote National Review's Jeffrey H. Anderson.
"In short, Upton would hurt ObamaCare, not fix it — which is why Obama opposes it," he added.
A more palatable fix for Democrats is a bill authored by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — who faces a tough re-election contest next year — that would let people keep their existing plans, though it would not let insurance companies sell those policies to new enrollees. Called the "Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act" — 2014, anyone? — the bill has the backing of other purple state Dems up for re-election, but also some lawmakers from deep blue states as well.
However, both bills have been hastily drafted, leaving little time for lawmakers or analysts to review their potentially wide-reaching impact.
As The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn pointed out, the Upton bill is only 235 words long, "a sign of how little the sponsors have thought through — or care — about its potentially far-reaching effects." As for the supposedly more ObamaCare-friendly Landrieu alternative, a number of health experts who spoke with the Washington Post's Ezra Klein said it, too, could have disastrous effects on the law as a whole, raising premiums by an unknown amount.
Impact aside, the fixes — including the administration's own — could be too late anyway. Insurance companies, who have spent years preparing for Healthcare.gov's debut, told Politico that "it's likely too late to undo the cancelation notices that already have gone out."
As for the political ramifications, Democrats could wind up falling into a lose-lose trap by embracing these kinds of changes, both crippling the law, and hurting their party come 2014.
Remember, a basic premise of ObamaCare is that people be moved onto better insurance plans. The fact that some people will lose coverage and have to find a more thorough plan, thereby subsidizing the entire market, is actually a good thing, from that perspective.
While there's a huge backlash over Obama's broken promise now, the "anger will fade over time as the exchanges come online" wrote New York's Jonathan Chait. Slapping a patch on the law that let's people keep their bad insurance plans, however, would raise premiums and lead to even more anger down the road as election day nears.
"Imagine it's next year, insurers are pulling out of the exchanges, rates are rising, all because of a law Congress hastily passed the year before," Chait wrote. "Is that a better situation?"
Obama screwed up in saying everyone could keep their insurance plans under ObamaCare, and he and Democrats are suffering the fallout from that false claim. But Democrats may only do more damage to their party — and the law — by embracing an ill-advised fix solely to stop the short-term bleeding.