17 Nov 2013

Obama’s credibility on the line over healthcare fiasco

It was the flagship achievement of his presidency: now amid the disaster of his health care rollout – President Obama is fighting to restore some credibility – as his ratings drop through the floor.

Barack Obama (getty)

Not wars, not terrorism, not international disasters: the policy which was supposed to define the Obama presidency has become its greatest political crisis. The long awaited health care law is in tatters; plagued by technical glitches and inconsistencies. It’s taking the president’s credibility down with it.

The reforms have become deeply unpopular – not just with voters furious that their insurance policies are being cancelled – but with Democrats worried about their election chances. A sudden reversal of fortune looms, at a time when the Republicans had been flailing at the bottom of the polls.

On Thursday the president made a highly public apology, admitting his mistakes and declaring he had “fumbled the ball” on the Affordable Care Act launch. He needed, he said, to win back the confidence and trust of the American people. “We’re not going to gut the law. We’re going to fix what needs to be fixed.”

President Obama had repeatedly promised that people who liked their current insurance policies would be able to keep them. In effect, however, this has proven untrue: millions of policies that don’t meet the minimum requirements of the new law are being cancelled, leaving people without any insurance at all.

We did fumble the ball on it… We’re going to fix what needs to be fixed. President Obama

Mr Obama’s fix – allowing people to keep limited coverage for at least a year – something which immediately rang alarm bells among insurers, who said that the change could affect the complicated funding behind the law.

Thanks to technical problems which have rendered the HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace website virtually unusable, just over 100,000 people have manaegd to sign up to purchase policies – a tiny fraction of the 7 million people who will be needed to ensure the law works properly.

The mea culpa was just the first step: President Obama went on to meet insurance chiefs at the White House, asking for ideas for the best way to implement the changes in the rules. Not all of them will have been happy to oblige.

The world turned upside down

Monica Lindeen, Montana’s insurance commissioner who’s also vice president of the industry’s national body, told the Washington Post that President Obama’s move “throws everything on its head”, after three years of careful preparation for the reforms.

Her state’s main insurance provider is poised to cancel policies which don’t meet requirements by the end of the year. If that has to be reversed, they’ll need time to calculate new prices and give customers 45 days notice of the changes, she warned.

And if not enough young, healthy people sign up for insurance, there won’t be enough resources to keep it going.

But the Republican ‘fix’ which passed the House last week with 39 Democrats crossing the floor to support it, would effectively gut the law altogether. Their proposal would allow insurers to carry on selling policies that neither cover basic services nor offer financial help for potentially catastrophic health problems.

Massachussetts Democrat Rep James McGovern warned it would tear the heart out of the reforms. “If you want to go back to a system where the insurance companies can turn people away because they are sick, by all means vote for this bill.”

My constituents are upset, and so am I. The rollout has been a disaster. Rep Tom Barber, Democrat, Arizona

It is unlikely to pass the Senate, and President Obama has already vowed to veto it – but the fact that dozens of Democrats were worried enough about their re-election prospects to support it, is highly telling.

“My constituents are pretty upset, and so am I”, Arizona Democrat Rep Tom Barber told CNN. “The rollout has been a disaster.”

Crisis of confidence

The days of the government shutdown – when it was the Republicans bearing the brunt of public opprobrium – now seems an age away for the Democrats, despite the admonishments of their House leader Nancy Pelosi: “What’s important about it is that the American people get served, not who gets re-elected”.

But President Obama is looking perilously adrift: his legacy in doubt amid what many see as a growing litany of broken promises. On Monday, he plans a conference call with some of his most prominent supporters.

But his claim that he had simply not been informed about the problems with the rollout, that he had not known anything about the extent of the troubles, makes him look out of the loop, out of control, remote and detached rather than firmly in charge.

The White House is confident that President Obama’s proposed fix will mend the problems with the website and help the rollout to start working properly at last. If it doesn’t – that could spell no end of political headaches for the Democrats, not just now – but for years to come.

It is not a good place to be for a president struggling to re-establish credibility and trust. Not a good place at all.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News