Former Obama aide returns to get health care law back on track

Phil Schiliro (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Phil Schiliro (AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama is bringing a former top aide with deep ties to Congress back to the White House to help get his health care overhaul back on track after a bungled rollout.

Officials say Phil Schiliro, who as Obama’s top liaison to Capitol Hill helped push the Affordable Care Act through Congress, is taking on a short-term assignment to help coordinate policy surrounding the law.

He’ll work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, other agencies and members of Congress.

The Medicare agency oversees the federal website that uninsured people are supposed to use to buy government-subsidized health insurance. Starting next year, virtually all Americans will be required to have coverage or face fines. But a cascade of technical problems overwhelmed HealthCare.gov when it went live on Oct. 1, frustrating consumers and sending Obama’s poll ratings into a dive.

After weeks of repairs, the administration announced last week that the worst of the technical problems had been fixed and that the site was working reasonably well for most users. But it’s too really to say if the website has really turned a corner. It’s also quite likely that the White House will stumble into another crisis as officials try to implement a complex, politically polarizing law with broad effects on society.

Schiliro’s appointment is comparable to that of Jeffrey Zients, the management expert and former Obama administration official who returned in mid-October to oversee the rescue of the dysfunctional website. But where Zients is an organizational troubleshooter, Schiliro brings years of political connections and health care policy expertise to an insular White House. Prior to his first stint in the administration, he had been a longtime adviser to California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the co-authors of the health care law.

Schiliro left the White House about two years ago and moved to New Mexico, where he opened a business consulting for nonprofits.

In a statement provided by the White House, Schiliro said he wants to help because the law is important to Obama.

The health care law is the signature domestic achievement of Obama’s presidency, but it’s been challenged every step of the way by congressional Republicans and other opponents.

The website woes took the White House by surprise, rattling Obama’s own supporters and undermining their confidence in the administration’s basic competence. Then Obama sailed into another political storm: millions of people who buy insurance individually were getting cancellation notices because their policies did not measure up to the standards of the health care law. Amid growing criticism, the president apologized and proposed a workaround involving temporary extensions of current policies.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers facing tough re-elections next year began wavering.

Word of Schiliro’s return also comes as the White House seems to have realized that the success of the health care overhaul can’t be taken for granted. The president himself has plunged into a renewed effort to promote the law.

“We moved to New Mexico to go in a new direction, but this is important to the president,” Schiliro said in the statement. “A law that guarantees coverage to millions of Americans, improves quality and saves hundreds of billions of dollars is worth fighting for. I hope to help with that effort.”

Schiliro will work with White House-based health care advisers, including Jeanne Lambrew and Chris Jennings.

The New York Times first reported on Schiliro’s return.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press  All Rights Reserved.

Obamacare website upgrade this weekend?

Looking over the Affordable Care, if you can get online. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Looking over the Affordable Care, if you can get online.
(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

The Obama administration hopes to upgrade the performance of its faltering HealthCare.gov website this weekend by adding new capacity just two weeks before a crucial deadline for having it running smoothly, a presidential adviser said on Friday.

“We will be bringing additional servers online, as well as additional database capacity and data storage. With these upgrades, we will significantly increase the system’s capacity,” President Barack Obama’s website adviser Jeffrey Zients told reporters in a conference call.

HealthCare.gov, the administration’s Obamacare web portal for offering subsidized private health coverage to uninsured Americans in 36 of the 50 states, has been at the center of a political firestorm over technical problems that overwhelmed its October 1 launch and have dogged the system ever since.

Zients, a respected crisis manager and long-time Obama ally, is overseeing an emergency effort to get the site operating smoothly for the vast majority of users by November 30.

That leaves only two weeks for the website to enroll well over a million people who could be waiting to sign up by a December 15 deadline for coverage that would begin January 1.

The work due to get under way over the weekend could prove to be an important test of the system’s resilience as officials prepare for a potentially huge influx of visitors during the two-week December enrollment period. Analysts say that period could help make or break the healthcare law that is considered to be Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

Some technical experts believe the Zients team faces an overwhelming challenge that is unlikely to satisfy critics of the law that mandates that most Americans at least be enrolled for health insurance by March 31 or pay a fine.

On Friday, Zients sounded less cautious than a week earlier, when he described the site as being “a long way from where it needs to be” with higher volumes of visitors exposing new problems.

He said round-the-clock efforts to correct HealthCare.gov’s problems by hundreds of contractors have made “measurable” progress, allowing higher volumes of visitors to enter the site. A senior administration official told a congressional oversight panel this week that the system can now process nearly 17,000 registrations per hour.

The system continues to be slow during peak periods, despite improvements against system timeouts, errors and slow responses when volumes are lower, Zients said.

“We clearly need the system to perform reliably with fast response times and higher volumes. This is a key focus of our work now,” he said.

The team has crossed more than 200 fixes off its “punch list” of technical issues and is targeting 50 additional improvements for the next week, Zients said.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters  All Rights Reserved

Bill Clinton leading Democrats demanding Obamacare changes

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

The growing pressure on President Barack Obama to adjust his problem-plagued healthcare law seemed to boil over on Tuesday, as leaders of Obama’s Democratic Party called on him to allow a change in the law so that Americans who are happy with their health plans could keep them.

In what became the clearest sign yet of Democrats’ increasing anxiety over the troubled rollout of the healthcare law, former President Bill Clinton told the web magazine Ozymandias that Obama should support such a change to fulfill a promise he and his administration have made to Americans for years.

“I personally believe, even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton told the magazine.

The comments were significant coming from Clinton, perhaps the most popular figure in the Democratic Party and a longtime supporter of efforts to help millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans obtain coverage for health care.

Since the 2010 Affordable Care Act went into effect on October 1, millions of Americans have discovered their current plans were being canceled because the plans did not meet minimum coverage levels required by the new law, also known as Obamacare.

Amid criticism that he had broken his promise to those who want to keep their old health plans, Obama apologized last week for not being more clear in his statements about the law.

But the apology did not do much to tamp down a wave of criticism of the president. That criticism – combined with the ongoing problems of the HealthCare.gov that have kept untold numbers of Americans from signing up for coverage under the new law – appeared to push at least some Democrats to a breaking point on Tuesday.

Hours after Clinton’s comments, the U.S. Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said that although the White House has long resisted alterations to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should be open to “constructive changes” to improve the law also known as Obamacare.

Another influential senator, California’s Dianne Feinstein, issued a statement shortly afterward, saying that she would join Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, in sponsoring a bill that would allow Americans to keep their current insurance plans, even if the plans do not meet the new law’s standards for coverage.

“Too many Americans are struggling to make ends meet,” Feinstein said in a statement. “We must ensure that in our effort to reform the healthcare system, we do not allow unintended consequences to go unaddressed.”

For Republicans who opposed Obamacare and have long been critical of virtually every aspect of the law and the administration’s promotion of it, Tuesday’s message was: I told you so.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said the comments from Democrats signaled “a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage.”

Republican House leaders have scheduled a vote for later this week on a bill offered by Republican Fred Upton of Michigan that is similar to the Senate bill co-sponsored by Landrieu and Feinstein.

Landrieu is among a dozen Democratic senators for whom fixing Obamacare is politically urgent because they face tough reelection campaigns next year.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, commenting before Feinstein’s announcement, said Tuesday that Upton’s House bill would cause problems for insurers who were trying to sell plans that met the basic standards of the new law.

“We do not see that as fixing the problem – we see that as throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Carney said. “That would cause more problems and create more problems, and do more harm than any good.”

Carney also said the administration is searching for a way to help those facing cancellations. He did not provide details.

The House vote – and the potential for a similar vote in the Democrat-led Senate on the Landrieu/Feinstein plan – mean that Democrats likely will have to cast another vote on the healthcare law before next year’s midterm elections, which will decide the balance of power in Congress.

Beyond the flap over canceled coverage and the website’s problems, the administration has acknowledged that the first report of enrollment in the healthcare program – due later this week – will be underwhelming.

The Wall Street Journal has reported fewer than 50,000 Americans were able to sign up for new Obamacare health insurance plans in 36 states in October through HealthCare.gov. The administration would not confirm the number, but it has said that enrollment data will be released this week.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that most Americans at least be enrolled for health insurance by March 31 or pay a fine. Americans must enroll by December 15 for coverage that begins January 1.

The paltry enrollments and doubts about whether HealthCare.gov will be fixed by the end of November, as promised by the White House, have intensified pressure to find alternatives or extend the enrollment period beyond March 31.

Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who also faces a tough re-election bid in 2014, told reporters she is asking federal investigators to look into the design and contracting for HealthCare.gov.

In recent weeks, Hagan announced her support for a two-month extension of the open enrollment period for individuals seeking health insurance on Obamacare’s new market exchanges, along with a similar delay in penalties for failing to sign up in time.

So far, the administration has rejected the idea of such delays, even while conceding that fixing the website is a challenge.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters  All Rights Reserved

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Health care ‘reform’ could undermine employee plans

In this Jan. 13, 2010, file photo Democratic Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks in Nashville, Tenn. The new health care law wasn't supposed to undercut employer plans that have provided most people in the U.S. with coverage for generations. But said Bredesen, "The economics of dropping existing coverage is about to become very attractive to many employers, both public and private." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

The new health care law wasn’t supposed to undercut employer plans that have provided most people in the U.S. with coverage for generations.

But last week a leading manufacturer told workers their costs will jump partly because of the law. Also, a Democratic governor laid out a scheme for employers to get out of health care by shifting workers into taxpayer-subsidized insurance markets that open in 2014.

While it’s too early to proclaim the demise of job-based coverage, corporate number crunchers are looking at options that could lead to major changes.

“The economics of dropping existing coverage is about to become very attractive to many employers, both public and private,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen, D-Tenn.

That’s just not going to happen, White House officials say.

“The absolute certainty about the Affordable Care Act is that for many, many employers who cover millions of people, it increases the incentives for them to offer coverage,” said Jason Furman, an economic adviser to President Barack Obama.

But at least one major employer has shifted a greater share of plan costs to workers, and others are weighing the pros and cons of eventually forcing employees to strike out on their own.

“I don’t think you are going to hear anybody publicly say ‘We’ve made a decision to drop insurance,’ ” said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. “What we are hearing in our meetings is, ‘We don’t want to be the first one to drop benefits, but we would be the fast second.’ We are hearing that a lot.” Deloitte is a major accounting and consulting firm.

Employer health benefits have been a middle-class mainstay since World War II, when companies were encouraged to offer health insurance instead of pay raises. About 150 million workers and family members are now covered.

When lawmakers debated the legislation, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected it would only have minimal impact on employer plans.

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Online:

Deloitte Center for Health Solutions: http://tinyurl.com/2ucbnvc

American Benefits Council: http://www.appwp.org/

Governor’s health care site: http://www.healthcare.gov/

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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