President Barack Obama's announcement Thursday that he would allow health insurers to delay cancellations of substandard plans for a year may have been politically necessary, but it is more than disappointing. It delays realization of the Affordable Care Act's goal to put nearly all Americans into affordable, comprehensive health coverage instead of Swiss-cheese-style health insurance products that often leave people underinsured. But it is better than a plan the House will consider today, and it could give the administration some breathing room to fix an appallingly rocky rollout of the online federal health insurance marketplace.
The president brought Thursday's events on himself when he repeatedly overpromised that his signature domestic achievement would not stop Americans who wanted to keep the health insurance they had. That might be true for about 95 percent of Americans with insurance who are covered by employer-sponsored policies, or who are in government-sponsored health insurance such as Medicare and Medicaid. But Obama's statement didn't allow for insurers' discretion to stop offering products that were grandfathered in under the 2010 ACA law, nor did it acknowledge that insurers would abandon products offered since then that clearly would run afoul of the standards taking effect in January. And now it's not even clear if the private market will actually take advantage of what Obama has proposed.
The uproar has given Republicans in Congress another excuse to call for the law's repeal, as House Speaker John Boehner did again on Thursday. The House will vote today on a measure to gut the ACA by allowing insurers to offer substandard policies to new customers, not just existing ones. That would divert younger, healthy people from the online marketplaces, one way to ensure a "death spiral" and the marketplaces' demise.
For healthy people, inexpensive bare-bones insurance may seem like a good deal — until they have an accident or get sick. Then they often find their policy covers relatively little and excludes past medical conditions. The ACA requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions without charging more and to provide comprehensive coverage.
Thursday's conversation might also have been different had the federal online health insurance marketplaces worked as advertised. But the website healthcare.gov has brought mind-numbing frustration to those who attempt to use it. Only 106,000 people had succeeded in signing up for a private health plan as of Wednesday, and of those only 26,794 people did so through the federally run site. The outcry from those receiving private insurance cancellations might have been different had they been able to easily access information online, including whether they qualified for a subsidy.
The president reiterated promises Thursday that a "tech surge" will have the website fully operational by the end of November. He needs to deliver, or he risks allowing ineptness to wholly undermine landmark legislation that has the potential to bring Americans medical security and peace of mind.