In reversal, Obama to allow canceled health plans

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WASHINGTON -- His personal and political credibility on the line, President Barack Obama reversed course yesterday and said millions of Americans should be allowed to renew individual coverage plans now ticketed for cancellation under the health care law that is likely to be at the heart of the 2014 elections.

The immediate impact on consumers was unclear, though both industry spokesmen and state insurance commissioners swiftly warned that higher prices could result from the president's rapid turnaround.

Under pressure from consumers as well as congressional Democrats, Obama said the administration no longer would require insurance companies to jettison current individual and small group plans that fall short of the minimum coverage standards under the law, effectively shifting responsibility for cancellations to the industry itself. The change would be good for just one year, though senior administration officials said it could be extended if problems persist.

Speaking of the millions of people whose coverage is being scrapped, Obama said, "What we want to do is to be able to say to these folks, you know what, the Affordable Care Act is not going to be the reason why insurers have to cancel your plan."

Obama spoke at a news conference where he repeatedly took responsibility for the woeful rollout of the health care program known by his name. Officials disclosed on Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 enrollments were completed in 36 states in the first month of operations for healthcare.gov.

Including enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number was 106,000 for October sign-ups. But that is still far fewer than expected and a mere fraction of the cancellation notices that have gone out because of the law -- more than 4 million, according to an Associated Press survey.

Obama's approval ratings in polls are also ebbing, and he readily conceded that after recent events, the public can legitimately "expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general."

Shortly after Obama spoke, the major industry trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, warned in a statement that prices might rise as a result of his new policy. "Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers," it said.

A few hours later, the head of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners added a fresh word of caution. Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, president of the group, said Obama's proposal could lead to higher premiums and market disruptions next year and beyond.

Nor was it clear how different states would react to the request to change the rules.

In California, where more than 900,000 cancellations have been sent out, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones called on insurers to extend the policies being scrapped.

But in Washington state, his counterpart, Mike Kreidler, said he won't allow that to happen. "I have serious concerns about how President Obama's proposal would be implemented and more significantly, its potential impact on the overall stability of our health insurance market," he said in a statement.

Whatever the impact on consumers, Obama's announcement did nothing to quell Republican opposition to the overhaul they opposed, sought to have overturned at the Supreme Court and have voted numerous times to repeal.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was time to scrap the law "once and for all." He said, "You can't fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare. It's just not fixable."

Even so, the House is expected to vote as scheduled today on GOP-drafted legislation to permit insurance companies to sell existing individual coverage plans to current customers as well as newcomers. That is a step further than Obama went, and the White House is likely to oppose the measure as a result.

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