While religious plaintiffs press legal challenges to the HHS contraception mandate, authorized under the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans call for its repeal, the White House’s struggles to implement major provisions of the law have drawn fire from its own vulnerable allies on Capitol Hill.
Last week, a striking exchange during an April 17 Senate hearing between Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, a key author of the ACA, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, underscored the party’s deepening anxiety about whether the administration will meet its deadlines. And today, Baucus announced that he would not seek a seventh term, a decision that marked the challenges he faced in Washington and back in Montana, where constituents generally opposed Obamacare and were angry about his role in securing its passage.
Here’s the exchange that has prompted the president’s allies in the media to come to his defense:
BAUCUS: When I am home small businesses have no idea what to do, what to expect. They don’t know what affordability rules are; they don’t know when penalties may apply. They just don’t know. I was talking to one CPA — you know, he’s not histrionic, he’s just being straight with me. He says, “Max, I just got to tell you that, you know, my — my — my clients, small business people are just throwing their hands up, and I don’t know what to tell them.” So that’s just from the small business perspective, let alone all the other issues that are going to be arising here.[...]
I just tell you, I just see a huge train wreck coming down. You and I have discussed this many times and I don’t see any results yet. What can you do to help all these people around the country going, “What in the world do I do and what — how do I know what to do?”
SEBELIUS: Well, Mr. Chairman, as — as you know, and — and we have had these discussions a number of times, we certainly take outreach and education very, very seriously. It’s one of the reasons that I think we were incredibly disappointed that our requests for additional outreach and education resources were not made available in the C.R. of 2013.
On April 21, National Review’s John Fund noted that the administration has already begun to prepare the public for a rough roll out:
Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, admitted his doubts to a group of health-care executives recently. “We are under 200 days from open enrollment [in Obamacare], and I’m pretty nervous,” he said. “The time for debating . . . is it a world-class experience, that’s what we used to talk about two years ago. Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience.”
The White House, said Fund, plans to stir up support for Obamacare, bolstering enrollment in time for the October 1 deadline:
Advertising Age reports that the firm Weber Shandwick will help “roll out a campaign to convince skeptical — or simply confused — Americans the Affordable Care Act is good for them and convince them to enroll in a health plan.
So the White House apparently knows it needs help. However the president’s allies in the media are not yet prepared to reassess the bill itself, even as they pile on the GOP for undermining the law by refusing HHS' requests for billions more for mounting implementation costs. In fact, the Democrat-controlled Senate has also rejected the administration's requests, as the Wall Street Journal opinion page confirmed April 23, in an editorial that reported that "high-risk pools" have run out of money and are closed to new enrollees.
After the Baucus-Sebelius exchange, Kevin Drum, a columnist at Mother Jones, defended the administration, while throwing in a caveat or two.
Ezra Klein offered a more partisan explanation for the explosion of negative headlines following the Baucus’ comments in a post on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Somehow, it was all the GOP’s doing.
Yet Baucus’ comments were just the latest sign that Democrats’ feared that the healthcare law could implode on Obama’s watch
On April 12, Washington Post healthcare columnist, Sarah Kliff, asked, “Does the Obama administration have the money to set up Obamacare?”
Kliff explained the problem:
A few months after Obamacare became law, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Health and Human Services would need between $5 and $10 billion to get the law up and running.
That was not great news for HHS. The law’s drafters gave the agency just a fraction of that: A total of $1 billion in implementation funds. Any further funding would require Congress to act.
Since the House won’t approve more funding, she said that HHS has been forced to move funds around to cover costs for implementing the first year of the ACA.
HHS Assistant Secretary fo Financial Resources Ellen Murray told reporters at a briefing that “The agency doesn’t know where next year’s budget will come from.”
Last month, the White House itself, according to the New York Times cautioned officials to be careful about suggesting that the law would drive down costs. After extensive research, the administration said it was unwise to tell consumers that they could get “health insurance that fits your budget.” That message, it said, is “seen as highly motivational, but not as believable.”
Prepare for more “believable” talking points in the months ahead as the White House gears up for the first wave of enrollees in October.