The uneasy alliance between President Obama and health insurers is being put to the test by the troubled rollout of ObamaCare.
With the botched enrollment website dragging Obama’s approval rating to record lows and threatening to undermine his biggest legislative achievement, some Democrats say the president should deflect blame onto the industry.
The healthcare companies in many ways represent an ideal political target, as they are unpopular and intimately involved in the rollout — and Democrats haven’t hesitated to go after them in the past.
Democrats highlighted what they said were the heartless business practices of insurers during the debate over the healthcare law. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) at one point called them “immoral villains.”
But the White House has appeared reluctant to attack the insurers now, in part because they’ve sought their help in repairing the floundering enrollment portal.
The insurers and the White House have formed “alpha teams” to prevent errors and duplications on ObamaCare applications, and the two sides are keeping in close contact as officials race to fix HealthCare.Gov.
But it's unclear how long the détente will last.
Calls for the administration to take on the insurers have grown amid the backlash over the president’s famous promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”
Millions of Americans have received cancellation letters in recent weeks informing them that because of ObamaCare, they will not be able to retain their health insurance — dealing a blow to the president’s credibility.
Allies of the president say insurance companies played a role in the cancellations, and argue the president should do more to highlight that.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said she did not understand “for the life of me” why Democrats didn’t blame the “fantastic enemy” they have in front of them.
“We ought to say, ‘The insurance companies are absolutely undermining this,' and they don't want to have policies that meet the minimum requirements and we're not going to stand for it,” she said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
Under the law, insurance companies must offer enrollees plans that satisfy basic coverage requirements. Consumers who have maintained their coverage since before the Affordable Care Act was passed can keep their current plans — as long as insurers continue to offer them.
But many insurance companies have opted to cancel existing plans and instead only offer policies compatible with the law. In doing so, they have cut down on the administrative costs of offering multiple policies and preserve profit margins that might have dwindled.
But critics say the insurers are trying to force their customers into buying new, more expensive coverage.
“If an insurance company decides it’s changing how it's going to structure its plan, that's not the law doing it. That's the insurance company deciding for business reasons,” former White House health adviser Zeke Emanuel told Fox News on Sunday.
Some customers have received letters from insurers detailing the higher costs of the new plans. But those letters often don’t detail the federal tax credits they might be eligible for under ObamaCare, nor do they steer consumers to the new insurance exchanges, where a competing insurer may be offering a more affordable plan.
“It’s pretty clear big insurance companies are trying to pull a fast one here,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
Thornell and other Democrats believe that the president could regain his political footing by taking the insurers to the woodshed.
“Democrats need to confront and call out the insurance companies for their role in cancelling some Americans coverage,” he said. “Insurance companies are making these decisions.”
Thornell said that by targeting insurers, Democrats would have the added advantage of putting the onus on Republicans to defend the industry.
“If Republicans want to ignore the insurance companies role, protect them, that’s understandable — Republicans have been in bed with insurance companies for years,” he said.
For now, the White House has declined to scapegoat insurers for the ObamaCare woes.
On Tuesday, White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough met with insurance executives at the White House and asked them to rework their cancellation letters. According to White House officials, he asked the companies to better explain to consumers what was happening, and urged them to spell out the benefits and subsidies that will soon be available.
But asked if the White House thought insurers weren’t being clear enough with their customers, White House press secretary Jay Carney held his fire.
“I don’t have that specific concern to report,” Carney said. “I think that what is definitely the case is that a lot of Americans out there who have gotten these … were not initially aware of their options. And again, we accept responsibility for a portion of that because the website wasn't working.”
Political observers say that the White House is reticent to grab the temporary advantage to be gained by bashing the insurance companies because they’ll need to work with them for the rest of Obama’s term.
“The president has been reluctant to take on the insurance companies or use excessively harsh words because ultimately they need them for this program to succeed,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
And ultimately, the administration’s ownership of the entire program — and especially an ObamaCare website still plagued by technical glitches — makes shifting blame a tricky maneuver.
“The Obama administration has very few people besides themselves to blame,” said Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson.
“They had to have known all along the private health care market is very volatile and based on year to year contracts, and that they're dealing with private, for profit companies. That the White House hasn’t been able to manage the expectations and reception of these difficulties by the public is a really strange thing.”