By Elise Viebeck and Justin Sink - 04/04/14 06:00 AM EDT
Delays to ObamaCare's employer mandate are raising doubts about whether the policy will ever be put into place.
On Wednesday, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he thinks the mandate will be scrapped.
"It’s a small part of the law. I think it will be one of the first things to go," Gibbs told a healthcare gathering in Colorado.
The White House on Thursday insisted that its former spokesman was wrong and said the mandate would be phased in, starting in 2015.
That hasn't quieted skeptics, who question whether it would be better for the administration to simply delay or undo the mandate altogether.
Gibbs isn’t the only high-profile former Obama administration official to suggest altering the controversial requirement.
During an event last month in Florida, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would look at reforming how the law impacted “small business of 50 or more” employees.
Clinton, who could inherit the mantle of ObamaCare as the Democratic nominee in 2016, also expressed concerns about employers "moving people from full-time work to part-time work to try to avoid contributing to their healthcare."
“I would be the first to say if things aren’t working then we need people of good faith to come together and make evidence-based changes,” Clinton said.
The employer mandate requires that firms with more than 50 full-time workers offer health insurance or pay a penalty.
Supporters on the left argue the requirement is crucial to ObamaCare's overall scheme of widening access to healthcare coverage.
Insurance companies also back the requirement, arguing it is fair only fair that employers contribute to the system.
But business groups contend that the White House should heed the warnings and undo a requirement they say will discourage hiring.
"It is encouraging and heartening that proponents of the law … are saying that there has to be some relief for small business under the mandate,” said Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs at the National Federation of Independent Business.
"It seems like folks are coalescing around the idea that the mandate is not necessary to move the administration's objectives forward."
Advocates for business also suggested the administration has undercut the argument for the mandate by delaying it twice.
Earlier this year, federal health officials announced that employers with between 50 and 99 workers have until January 2016 to offer health insurance or pay a fine.
That was on top of a previous delay in July 2013, which pushed back implementation of the penalty for all impacted companies until January 2015.
Companies with 100 or more workers will still face a penalty — $2,000 assessed for every employee after the first 30 — when part of the mandate takes effect next year.
Firms that franchise, such as fast food restaurants, have been particularly critical of the rule, arguing that it would raise costs for an industry with thin profit margins.
In particular, they’ve objected to the law’s requirement that all employees working more than 30 hours per week be counted as full-time for purposes of offering health coverage.
Groups like the International Franchise Association and the National Retail Federation enthusiastically endorsed Gibbs's comments and vowed to redouble their efforts against the mandate.
The campaign is likely to intensify pressure on vulnerable Democrats to back changes to ObamaCare.
The Republican National Committee on Thursday pounced on Gibbs's comment as evidence the mandate is doomed.
The same day, in the House, 18 Democrats sided with Republicans in passing a bill to adjust ObamaCare’s standard for full-time work.
Under current rules, businesses must offer healthcare coverage to anyone who works more than 30 hours a week. Critics say this definition is unreasonable and causing workers to cut hours.
There are also signs of flexibility among Senate Democrats.
While the House bill is unlikely to see a Senate vote, six centrist Democrats in the upper chamber recently suggested getting rid of the mandate for businesses with 50 to 100 workers.
Three of those lawmakers — Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) — are up for reelection this year.
"This [change] will enable small and mid-sized businesses to make their own choices for their businesses, and employees can shop for coverage on the individual marketplace," the members wrote in Politico.
If the GOP takes the Senate in the midterm elections, the White House's commitment to the employer mandate will be tested.
But the White House threatened to veto the change to the mandate that the House passed Thursday, saying it would result in 1 million workers losing insurance and add $74 billion to the deficit.
A Republican-controlled Congress is sure to pass bills changing ObamaCare, and legislation to repeal the employer mandate would likely be part of that effort.
Polling has consistently found that Democrats would be on the public’s side by supporting fixes for unpopular aspects of the law.
Fifty-four percent of people say they want lawmakers to repair ObamaCare, according to a survey released in March by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies.
By contrast, just 28 percent favor full repeal, and another 17 percent say they want the law to remain as is.
The White House, which is in close contact with vulnerable Democrats, denied on Thursday that the administration would again delay the employer mandate.
But spokesman Jay Carney sought to paint the White House as open to tweaking the healthcare law to make it better.
“There are all sorts of possible improvements that you could put out on the table, and what the president has always said is that he would absolutely entertain specific measures that were designed to improve the law,” Carney said.