WASHINGTON — His personal and political credibility on the line, President Barack Obama reversed course Thursday 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 warned that higher prices could result.
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.
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. 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."
The president sought to shelter from political fallout any congressional Democrats who echoed the promise he repeated often when the legislation was under consideration in Congress — that anyone who liked his or her coverage would be able to keep it. "They were entirely sincere about it," he said of the lawmakers. "It's not on them, it's on us."
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.
It was unclear how different states would react. Florida is a state that already allowed insurers to renew noncompliant plans for one more year.
Until the president made his announcement, the administration had been assuming that individuals covered by plans marked for cancellation would switch to alternatives offered in government-established exchanges.
It will now be up to individual companies to decide which plans remain for sale, subject to the approval of state insurance commissioners.
Under Obama's new policy, insurance companies will be required to inform consumers who want to keep canceled plans about the protections that are not included under those plans. Customers will also be notified that new options are available offering more coverage and in some cases, tax credits to cover higher premiums.
Obama's announcement did nothing to quell Republican opposition to the overhaul they have long opposed.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it was time to scrap the law "once and for all."
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.
The president faces a different set of concerns in the Senate, where several incumbents seeking new terms in swing states have been seeking a vote on legislation to require insurers to offer renewals to existing individual plans for 2014 and indefinitely into the future.