President Barack Obama was in Boston, Massachusetts on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 30, 2013 delivering an address selling his embattled and problem filled health care law at historic Faneuil Hall. Appearing alongside Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who introduced him, the President tried to reassure the American public about their concerns on the health care law, and discuss what os being done to fix all the technical difficulties with the Marketplace's website, HealthCare.gov. Obama chose the historic location because he wanted to invoke the problems and then success of the first public statewide government health insurance, signed into by then Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seven years ago in 2006, with health care advocate Senator Ted Kennedy, D-MA looking on. Meanwhile, earlier in the day Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the website's woes.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick introduced President Obama and spoke of the success the state now has with their healthcare law, and the early problems they experienced with their own website, when the law started. Gov. Patrick then compared the problems with both systems, saying both healthcare laws are about more than their websites. Speaking of the Massachusetts health care law implementation Patrick said; "So we started out with a website that needed work… that same coalition stuck with it and with us to work through the fixes, tech surge and all…. Because health reform in Massachusetts, like the Affordable Care Act, is not a website… It's about insuring people against a medical catastrophe. "
President Obama began his speech discussing the Massachusetts model, and then comparing it to his national law. One of the aspects he wanted to point out is that although the Massachusetts health care law now is a success with 97 percent of the state's population signed up, it faced early challenges. Obama explained; "Health care reform in this state was a success. That doesn't mean it was perfect right away. There were early problems to solve." The President wanted to use the only example he could to try to convince Americans to still believe that the new health care law will eventually work out.
The President then listed the various advantages the new health care law provides. He also explained what HealthCare.gov, the Marketplace is suppose do, stating; "The Affordable Care Act created a new marketplace for quality, private insurance plans for the 15 percent or so of Americans who don't have health care, and for the 5 percent of Americans who have to buy it on their own and they're not part of a group, which means they don't get as good a deal."
The President acknowledged the problems associated with HealthCare.gov, the insurance policy marketplace. The President announced; "This marketplace is open now…. The deal is good. The prices are low. But let's face it, we've had a problem. The Web site hasn't worked the way it's supposed to." Continuing he admitted to the numerous problems the website is facing with its malfunctions, promising their swift repair; "There's no denying it: Right now the Web site is too slow, too many people have gotten stuck, and I am not happy about it, and neither are a lot of Americans who need health care. So there's no excuse for it, and I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP. We are working overtime to improve it every day."
The President also addressed the Republican new battle cry that Obama did not keep his promise "if you like your plan, you can keep it." Since the law started its rollout, Americans have been receiving cancellation notices from their insurance companies, stating that their insurance policies do not fit the law's requirements. This is now forcing about 2 million of Americans that had been previously satisfied and comfortable with their policies to find new insurance coverage. Obama explained the cancellations are because the plans are "substandard" and do not meet the "core set of minimum benefits."
Obama backed away from his perennial promise, trying to make it seem like blessing that Americans' insurance coverage was cancelled, because they can now get a better deal on the health care marketplace. Obama explained; "Today, that promise means that every plan in the marketplace covers a core set of minimum benefits…. And they can't use allergies or pregnancy or a sports injury or the fact that you're a woman to charge you more. They can't do that anymore.… So if you're getting one of these letters, just shop around in the new marketplace. That's what it's for…. You're going to get a better deal."
The President tried to assure the public that everyone now has the right to health insurance, even if it's not their previous policy; "Nobody is losing their right to health care coverage. And no insurance company will ever be able to deny you coverage or drop you as a customer altogether. Those days are over, and that's the truth." Continuing Obama tried to bolster the law's advantages, saying; "I don't think we should go back to the daily cruelties and indignities and constant insecurity of a broken health-care system, and I'm confident most Americans agree with me."
The President still defiantly denounced his Republicans critics about their cries that those cancellations notices mean that Americans are losing health care coverage as a result of the law, stating, "Because there's been a lot of confusion and misinformation about this, I want to explain just what's going on." and then explained that this has always happened and gave examples, Obama also declared; "If you leave that stuff out, you're being grossly misleading, to say the least…. It's no surprise that some of the same folks trying to scare people now are the same folks who've been trying to sink the Affordable Care Act from the beginning."
Remaining constantly in campaign mode Obama seems to never give a speech with disparaging the Republicans, even though this time Obama is gaining a number of Democratic detractors, who do not like the way the website rollout was handled and the trouble associated with it. Obama also criticized the Republicans, pronouncing; "If they put as much energy into making this law work as they do into attacking the law, Americans would be better off."
Concluding President linked his health care law to the historic building and painting of the founding of the nation on its walls, saying; "'Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.' That's the value statement Deval was talking about. That's what health care reform is about. That's what America is about. We are in this together, and we are going to see it through."
In invoking former Gov. Romney's institution of a statewide health care system in Massachusetts, President Obama also garnered a critical response from his former 2012 Presidential campaign opponent. Romney, who was not invited to Obama's event, issued a statement on Facebook regarding both the Massachusetts system and Obama's health care law; "In the years since the Massachusetts health care law went into effect nothing has changed my view that a plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country. Beyond that, had President Obama actually learned the lessons of Massachusetts health care, millions of Americans would not lose the insurance they were promised they could keep, millions more would not see their premiums skyrocket, and the installation of the program would not have been a frustrating embarrassment. Health reform is best crafted by states with bipartisan support and input from its employers, as we did, without raising taxes, and by carefully phasing it in to avoid the type of disruptions we are seeing nationally."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky also criticized the President after his speech, saying that the problems are with the law and broken promises and go beyond the website's vast technical difficulties. McConnell commented; "A website can be fixed. But the pain this law is causing - higher premiums and canceled coverage - that's what's really important. And that's what Democrats need to work with us to address by starting over fresh with true, bipartisan health reform."
Earlier in the day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the technical difficulties the HealthCare.gov website has been experiencing since it went live on Oct. 1, 2013. Sebelius expressed; “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov.” During her testimony the Health Secretary took complete responsibility for the website's problems, stating; "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible." Sebelius also admitted; "We should have anticipated; we should have planned better; we should have tested better." However, she countered the contractors' testimony from Thursday, saying; "Contractors had never suggested a delay. No one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems we've had and we must fix it." Ironically there was an outage on the health care site as Sebelius was testifying, complete with an error message reading; "The system is down at the moment."
The Obama administration has been downplaying the technical problems associated with the signing up process on the new health care website and Marketplace, HealthCare.gov. The Marketplace is riddled with error messages, and is turning millions of Americans visiting away, preventing others from completing the insurance sign up process, and causing cancellations from those who have already signed up, because of the numerous data errors in the applications.
The HealthCare.gov website is the main marketplace for 36 states; the remaining states have their websites developed. The website was supposed to be a portal to allow Americans to shop for health insurance that fits with the new law. There are two major technical problems with the site; it cannot withstand the traffic volume and its "platform design."
Meanwhile, the health care law is getting low marks. A new NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll also looked at Americans' impression of the health care law's troubled rollout, and the continued problems with HealthCare.gov, the insurance policy marketplace. According to the poll 37 percent think the law was "a good idea, while more Americans at 47 percent see it as a "bad idea." Additionally, 52 percent of Americans think the law needs an "overhaul" or to be "eliminated" compared to 44 percent who think it only needs "modifications" or is fine as it is. Americans are frustrated by the Marketplace's problems, but the majority believes it's a short term issue at 37 percent, with 31 percent believe it part of a broader problem, and 30 percent are undecided. However, the website problems are causing a confidence erosion for the law itself, with 40 percent being "less confident," a mere nine percent "more confident," while the majority of Americans at 50 percent feel "no change" towards the law.
With the problems continuing on through Nov. 30, the date the White House promised all the glitches will be repaired; President Obama is stuck with a political liability. The new NBC/WSJ poll gave the President his lowest approval rating ever at 42 percent, and Democratic poll conductor Peter D. Hart emphasized; "The sign-up problems have hurt the president personally rather than hurt the law." As the problems persist, Obama's ratings will plunge, as will the increase in bipartisan call to delay the individual mandate, the tax penalty set to go into effect on March 31, 2014. If more Democrats support the delay and criticize the President as is already starting, he will no longer be able to chant his criticism of Republicans, because members of his own party turned against his legislation.
The problems with the health care could seriously damage the president's legacy, as it has been his landmark and signature accomplishment. With so much at stake, Obama has to be less concerned with giving speeches and attacking the GOP, and make swiftly fixing the Marketplace and avoiding anymore potentially embarrassing problems with his law a priority, if he does not want to remembered in history more for the problems rather than the benefits of health care reform. Because then the Republicans would have been right; better to have not changed the system then to make a national mess.
- President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's Remarks on the Affordable Care Act, Oct. 30, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.