President Obama gave a vociferous defense of his health care law on Wednesday in Boston, returning to the intellectual birthplace of the legislation as he attempted defend his signature accomplishment after a difficult debut.
“Yes, this is hard. The health care system’s a big system, and it’s complicated,” Obama said at Faneuil Hall. “If it was hard doing it just in one state, it’s hard doing it in 50 states -- especially when the governors of a bunch of states, and half of Congress, don’t want to help.”
“But it’s important,” he added, before pounding on the podium. “We have to keep moving forward -- just like you did in Massachusetts.”
Obama’s health law with its insurance mandate, subsidies for low-income people, and online market place won narrow approval in Congress in 2010, survived a Supreme Court challenge, and failed to be the fatal political weapon that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Republicans hoped in the 2012 presidential election.
Now the administration is struggling to clear another set of hurdles: implementing a vast and complex law that alters one of the most basic needs of Americans’ lives. It has not gone well. The online marketplace has been plagued with crashes and failures since it launched Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of consumers who bought bare-bones individual health plans are receiving cancellation notices because those plans no longer meet minimum standards dictated by the law.
Under siege over his signature accomplishment, Obama came to Boston, perhaps the friendliest territory in the country, where he has high approval ratings and where residents are already accustomed to the framework of his health care law.
Before a boisterous crowd of health care executives, former Massachusetts legislators, and families that had been invited, Obama acted part salesman (“The deal is good, the prices are low”) and part as an angry defender (“We are going to see this through!”).
Obama spoke in the same room where Romney signed the state’s groundbreaking law in 2006 with the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, watching on.
“Mitt Romney and I ran a long and spirited campaign against one another,” Obama said. “But I always believed that when he was governor here in Massachusetts he did the right thing on health care.”
Obama stood behind four large poster-board signs that read, “Affordable Health Care” and in front of a giant painting that depicts a historic debate, ironically, over federalism.
Several hours before the speech, Romney released a statement criticizing Obama, saying the president failed to learn lessons from the Bay State and ridiculing his federal law.
“A plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country,” Romney said. “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…and the installation of the program would not have been a frustrating embarrassment.’’
David Simas, a top White House adviser, said Tuesday on a conference call that Romney was not invited to the Faneuil Hall event.
In the months since the election, White House officials have pointed their victory in the election as a sign that the American public supports their vision on health care – not Romney’s.
But this week, the administration has had to deflect complaints that hundreds of thousands of Americans are receiving notices canceling coverage, running counter to Obama’s pledge that, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Those who are receiving the cancelation notices – about 5 percent of the country -- currently have bare-bones, individual plans that do not meet new minimum standards.
Obama also sought to explain why hundreds of thousands of Americans are having their health insurance cancelled just as the new law is taking effect. The cancellations are of bare-bones plans that do not meet new minimum standards. Those weaker plans, many of them held by consumers in the individual insurance market, often do not cover certain treatments and have lifetime caps on coverage.
``These bad apple insurers had free reign,’’ Obama said. ``One of the things health reform was designed to do was help not only the uninsured but the underinsured.’’
On Wednesday morning, Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the rollout of the health care enrollment process.
“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov,” Sebelius said in an opening statement before a congressional hearing.
Sebelius, who some Republicans have called upon to resign, said at one point, “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
Obama also addressed the website problems.
“There’s no denying it. Right now the website is too slow, too many people have gotten stuck. And I’m not happy about it,” Obama said. “There’s no excuse for it. And I take full responsibly for making sure it gets fixed ASAP.”
The Massachusetts law provided much of the intellectual framework for the federal law. It has an individual mandate that requires people to obtain insurance, as well as subsidies for low-income individuals to purchase coverage. Both also have an online marketplace that features plans that individuals and small businesses can purchase.
Administration officials have pointed to Massachusetts as a template for slow enrollment, at least initially. Just 123 Bay State residents signed up for insurance coverage during its first month, with the bulk coming later once the requirements – and penalties – started to kick in.
But the Massachusetts health care rollout was much smoother, in part because it was smaller and easier to manage than the sprawling federal system. It was also done in several stages, making it easier to fix problems and ensure that the technological system was not overwhelmed.
Obama flew to Boston aboard Air Force One in the early afternoon. With the sun breaking through partly cloudy skies, the plane landed at Logan International Airport at 2:46 pm and pulled up on the tarmac. Obama was joined making his way from the plane down by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Massachusetts Congressmen John Tierney and William Keating Representative Steve Israel of New York, and Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
He was greeted at the bottom of the steps by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The group chatted for about four minutes and Menino gave the President a Red Sox baseball cap.
Before the speech, Obama stopped with Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell to view a statue of him that’s being unveiled this week on City Hall Plaza. Following the speech, Obama left en route to Weston, for a reception and dinner fundraiser with about 60 high-powered, moneyed attendees planning to fill Democratic coffers. The event is being hosted by longtime Democratic fundraiser Alan D. Solomont and his wife, Susan. Guests will be served Spanish-influenced fare in honor of Solomont’s post as US ambassador to Spain, which he completed in August. For dessert? Red Sox cookies.
Obama was scheduled to head to the airport after the fundraiser, leaving about an hour before the first pitch is thrown at Fenway to start Game 6 of the World Series.
“I am well aware that a presidential visit is not the biggest thing going on today in Boston,” Obama said. “I tried to grow a beard. But Michelle, she wasn’t having it.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.