Obama’s health care law roils Democrats

A bill sponsored by Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, would allow health insurers to continue selling weak health insurance plans to consumers.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
A bill sponsored by Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, would allow health insurers to continue selling weak health insurance plans to consumers.

WASHINGTON — The White House is scrambling to devise a plan to prevent hundreds of thousands of Americans from losing their health insurance as the growing political damage from President Obama’s health care law threatens to divide the Democratic Party over his signature achievement.

House Democrats berated White House officials during a private meeting Wednesday, imploring them to devise a way to stop the rash of insurance policy cancellations before they are forced on Friday to take a politically difficult vote on a Republican-sponsored remedy.

Individual health insurance policies that represent about 5 percent of the market are being terminated because they do not meet the Affordable Care Act’s minimum coverage standards. The cancellations have created a political storm for Obama, who has repeatedly promised that Americans who liked their existing plans could keep them under his health care law.


The tense meeting between White House officials and House Democrats was among the many low points this week in the Affordable Care Act rollout, which is still going poorly six weeks after the bungled launch of the health care marketplace website.

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The administration conceded Wednesday that only 106,000 Americans — a fifth of what had initially been estimated — had signed up for coverage in October, when the health insurance marketplaces opened for business. Of the consumers who have signed up for coverage, only a quarter of them, 26,794 people, did so through the much-maligned federal marketplace,, which is operating in 36 states. The rest were in the 14 states operating their own websites.

Despite the weak numbers, the administration sought to project confidence, once again pointing out that Massachusetts, with its first-in-the-nation universal health care launch in 2007, also experienced low enrollment in its first month.

‘‘We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,’’ Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call with reporters. ‘‘Even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling.’’

Obama’s job approval ratings have plunged to their lowest point in his presidency, just 39 percent in one poll. Earlier this week, former president Bill Clinton admonished Obama to live up to his promise of permitting people to keep their existing insurance if they wanted. But other Democrats, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, are sticking by the president, saying it is important to eliminate substandard plans.


Obama has taken responsibility for the website problems and apologized. But instead of improving, the atmosphere for the president and his health plan continues to deteriorate.

Some Democrats are joining Republicans in introducing bills that would permit people to keep nonconforming plans, even though they provide weak, gap-filled coverage.

Republicans, who just weeks ago were badly tarnished by the government shutdown, have been gleeful. They pointed to polling that showed that, even as Republicans are held in very low esteem, Americans were equally divided over which party they would support in the next House elections. A month earlier, the GOP had been 9 percentage points behind Democrats in the same poll.

“You point that to Obamacare, not just the rollout, but the cancellations,” said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We think this is the tip of the iceberg.’’

House Democratic leaders are standing with the president in opposition to a Republican House bill that would allow insurance plans that do not meet the law’s standards to remain on the market through 2014. But a trickle of Democratic defections could accelerate by Friday’s scheduled vote unless the White House comes up with its own plan to provide a reprieve on cancellations.


Two House Democrats are on record as co-sponsors of the Republican bill. A third, Representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said Wednesday afternoon that she was “favorably inclined” to vote for it.

“We should hold that promise,” Sinema said, referring to Obama’s promise that Americans could keep their health care plans.

Ron Barber, another Arizona Democrat, expressed interest in the bill and said he would make up his mind on Thursday.

“There are a lot of Democrats who are really concerned as I am,” Barber said. “We want to see the American people treated fairly and properly, and apparently that’s not happening, so we need to fix that.”

Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney, who is considered to be the most vulnerable of the state’s all-Democrat delegation to a Republican challenge in 2014, has not decided whether to support the House Republican bill. He has rarely strayed from House Democratic leadership positions, so his ambivalence is telling.

“It is incumbent upon the White House to find a resolution now that allows them to keep their commitment,” Tierney said in a prepared statement.

On Wednesday, the White House was racing to do just that. Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said in a briefing with reporters that Obama has instructed his team to come up with options for him to review to address the problem of people getting kicked off their health plans.

“You can expect a decision from him and an announcement from him sooner rather than later on options that we can take to address the problem,” Carney said.

As tempting as it may seem to some Democrats, the House Republican bill, the Keep Your Health Plan Act sponsored by Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, would allow insurers to continue selling subpar plans to consumers, a prospect the White House, party leaders, and other supporters of the law warn is just another way for Republicans to undercut health care insurance changes.

A separate Senate bill, sponsored by Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Dianne Feinstein of California, would grandfather in consumers who have policies that don’t meet the law’s new guidelines.

“The Landrieu bill is bad. The Upton bill is disastrous,” said Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who was the architect of the state’s health insurance law. If either passes, he said, insurers would lose money and consumers would see rate spikes in 2015.

Advocates say some pain is inevitable to reform insurance markets. In Massachusetts, about 150,000 residents were kicked off their plans after the state’s law imposed minimum coverage standards, including prescription benefits, beginning in 2009.

Democrats are hoping the website problems will disappear over time, and the positive effects of insuring hundreds of thousands of people who were previously denied or could not afford coverage will trump the negatives.

But with 2014 midterm elections looming for lawmakers, patience will be in increasingly short supply.

Globe correspondent Mattias Gugel contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.