White House scrambles to get ready for ObamaCare implementation

The White House is trying to heal what has been ailing the implementation of ObamaCare.

Three months before the most sweeping parts of the law are scheduled to go live, the administration has hired Chris Jennings, a veteran of the Clinton administration, to help lead the massive effort.

Jennings, a widely respected expert who can read the political winds, was a critic of then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPutin denies 2016 meddling: US is no 'banana republic' Black turnout key to House fight In this economy, Latinos are most frequent victims of wage theft MORE’s (D-Ill.) healthcare plan in 2008. As the lead healthcare adviser on Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWATCH LIVE: Trump speaks at third Ohio rally Picking longtime fixer as chief of staff proves Clinton hasn't changed Overnight Healthcare: How GOP could help fix ObamaCare | Cures bill in jeopardy | Senators unveil Medicare reforms MORE’s presidential campaign, Jennings ripped Obama’s healthcare proposal for lacking a mandate for people to buy insurance.

He likened Obama’s proposal as “a false promise” and “cruel hoax.” After winning the presidency, Obama reversed himself and embraced a healthcare mandate.

Jennings has emerged as a key ally of ObamaCare and the Obama administration over the past five years, strongly defending the president amid GOP attacks.

Jennings is aiming to help the administration overcome a recent series of setbacks and delays to ensure that the central pieces of the healthcare law go into effect smoothly. 

The administration has long planned to ramp up its outreach and education campaign over the summer, as crucial deadlines draw closer. 

Still, the hiring announcement also comes on the heels of the White House’s decision to delay the healthcare law’s employer mandate, a move that has emboldened critics and raised questions about whether the law can be implemented on time.

Since the departure of deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, the administration has lacked “somebody in the White House whose job it is to bring the technical and political together,” George Washington University professor Sara Rosenbaum said.

Jennings, who worked closely with DeParle in the Clinton administration, fits the bill. He served eight years in the Clinton White House, including six years as a senior healthcare adviser, and helped implement the Children’s Health Insurance Program. All told, he has 30 years of healthcare experience in Washington.

“I’m sure the events of last week convinced everyone that they need someone like that in place,” Rosenbaum said.

The employer mandate requires most employers with more than 50 full-time employees to either offer insurance coverage or pay a penalty to the government. The start date for that mandate has been moved back from Jan. 1, 2014, to Jan. 1, 2015.

The administration also rolled back provisions last week requiring the state insurance exchanges to verify applicants’ eligibility for new tax credits to help pay for their premiums.

The White House and its allies insist the law’s central pieces — new insurance marketplaces and tax credits to help people afford coverage — will be ready as scheduled by Oct. 1.

“Republicans and healthcare naysayers have as much credibility as the Psychic Friends Network,” said Nick Papas, the White House’s former healthcare spokesman. “The administration has an incredibly talented team that is going to get the work done.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the new marketplaces will be ready “as advertised” on Oct. 1.

Although the delays do not directly affect whether exchanges can be up and running by Oct. 1, they do have implications for the law overall and have provided new grist for critics who see the delays as a sign that the law is unworkable.

“It seems that almost every week, another part of ObamaCare is rolled back or delayed,” Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin HatchOrrin HatchOvernight Healthcare: How GOP could help fix ObamaCare | Cures bill in jeopardy | Senators unveil Medicare reforms Senators unveil bipartisan Medicare reforms The holy grail of tax policy MORE (R-Utah) said. “Given the size, scope and nature of legislation that was jammed through Congress in such a partisan manner, the monumental problems of getting ObamaCare online shouldn’t be surprising, but that’s no comfort to the American people who’ll have to live with this terrible law.”

Hatch said the scaled-back verification requirements for insurance exchanges are particularly troubling.

Earlier rules had called for each state’s exchange to independently verify information submitted by people seeking insurance, including their annual income and whether they were able to buy healthcare coverage through their employer.

But the Heath and Human Services Department said in new regulations Friday that exchanges could accept the information submitted by most applicants and double-check only a limited sample.

“This makes no sense since Congress and the administration have made combating waste, fraud and abuse within our federal healthcare programs a top priority,” Hatch said.

Healthcare experts said the problem with looser verification rules might not be fraud — the Internal Revenue Service will still be able to investigate suspicious discrepancies — but rather simple mistakes.

For example, Rosenbaum said, the exchanges are now relying solely on applicants to determine not only whether they’re eligible for employer-based coverage, but whether that coverage meets the healthcare law’s definition of affordability.

“That is nothing that any mere mortal would ever know,” she said.

Judith Feder, a professor at Georgetown University and an analyst for the Urban Institute, said concerns about the delays were being fed by the same critics who have predicted failure before.

“Yeah, there are loose ends, and the opponents grab on them and pull on them to make it sound like the whole program is falling apart,” said Feder, who ran against Rep. Frank WolfFrank Wolf10 most expensive House races Benghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia Lobbying World MORE (R-Va.) in 2006 and 2008.

Although the delays might be unrelated, the law is still facing a major public relations obstacle. Polls show the public disapproves of ObamaCare and is deeply misinformed about what it does.

As part of administration plans to ramp up education efforts as the Oct. 1 enrollment date grows closer, Organizing for America, the successor to the Obama campaign, released new commercials Monday highlighting provisions of the law that are already in effect.

Feder said delays in the employer mandate and the exchanges’ verification functions aren’t as bad as critics have made them seem, and she rejected the idea that Jennings and other veteran healthcare strategists are being brought in out of panic.

“Dots are being inappropriately connected,” she said.