Congress Weighing Laws to Let People Keep Health Insurance

Obama speaking.(Photo: BU Interactive News / Flickr)Washington, DC — As President Barack Obama signals he will do something on his own to make good on his broken promise that Americans could keep their insurance plans if they liked them, members of both parties in Congress are proposing to do it by law.

Proposed bills in both the Senate and the House of Representatives would stop cancellations of individual insurance policies that don’t meet the requirements of the health care law. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been notified their existing policies will be canceled, most to make way for new policies that meet the new law’s standards.

The president said Thursday that his staff was looking into ways to solve the problem, but he gave no details. On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Obama was “determined to address some of the challenges from this law,” but he declined to say whether the president agreed with the congressional proposals.

Earnest said Obama remained “open to working with members of Congress that have a genuine interest in trying to strengthen the Affordable Care Act.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana introduced a Democratic version of a keep-your-insurance plan on Monday. On Friday, Landrieu flew to Louisiana with Obama on Air Force One as he began a visit to her state.

Landrieu’s bill would allow people to keep their individual health insurance plans even if they didn’t meet the law’s minimum standards. The plans could be kept only as long as the policyholders made scheduled payments.

Landrieu’s bill also would require insurance companies to tell their customers which parts of their policies didn’t meet the minimum coverage standards for costs of such things as hospitalization or laboratory tests.

As of Friday, Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., had signed on. Landrieu, Hagan and Pryor face tough re-election races next year.

Senate Republicans proposed a similar bill last week. Introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., it would allow people to keep any health care plan they had from the time the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 through the end of this year. In all, 42 senators support it, all of them Republicans.

The House of Representatives will vote Nov. 15 on its proposed Keep Your Health Plan Act. That bill would allow existing health plans on the individual market to continue next year without any penalty. The House, where Republicans are a majority, has voted repeatedly in favor of bills that would delay or repeal the health care law.

On Friday, Republicans said the president needed to go farther than an apology to make good on his original promise that people could keep their insurance plans if they liked them.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me,” Obama said in an interview with NBC News. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that we hear them and that we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

“Sorry isn’t enough, Mr. President,” tweeted Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., referring to a report by the libertarian Manhattan Institute that premiums will increase under the law.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement: “Actions speak louder than words. If the president is serious about offering relief to Americans whose health plans are being canceled, then he should strongly support the Keep Your Health Plan Act.”

Upton, the author of the House version of the legislation, said there was a bipartisan effort “to allow Americans to keep the health plans they know and like, and can afford.”

Hagan also warned that the administration needed to fix the law.

“An apology is only helpful if it is followed by direct and meaningful action to get the Affordable Care Act working,” she said in a statement. She earlier proposed a two-month extension of the enrollment period.

Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Friday that there was no plan to extend the deadline because of the malfunctioning website, where people check if they qualify for tax credits and find insurance plans. The White House has a Nov. 30 deadline to fix the problems on the website, and that leaves four months when people can enroll for insurance before the March 31, 2014, deadline, he said.

One key question about the legislative proposals that let people keep plans that didn’t provide the coverage required under the law was how long they’d remain in effect.

If they go on forever, “you’re essentially saying there are no standards to be met,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. He said that the law’s standards prevent the “rude awakening” of finding out that one’s insurance policy doesn’t cover medical costs.