November 13, 2013
Mary Landrieu (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Mary Landrieu (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Obamacare’s political standing seemed to grow more precarious today — at least in the short term — thanks to a number of rapidly moving events. House Democrats gave White House officials an angry earful, demanding the administration offer its own fix to the problem of people losing insurance because of Obamacare. If not, some will vote for GOP Rep. Fred Upton’s “fix.”

Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Merkley — a blue state Dem — surprised Obamacare supporters when he signed on to Mary Landrieu’s fix to the bill, the “Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act,” which would require insurers to continue plans for a year.

How badly would the Landrieu bill undermine Obamacare? Ezra Klein spoke to experts and concluded:

The bill Landrieu is offering could really harm the law. It would mean millions of people who would’ve left the individual insurance market and gone to the exchanges will stay right where they are. Assuming those people skew younger, healthier, and richer — and they do — Obamacare’s premiums will rise. Meanwhile, many people who could’ve gotten better insurance on the exchanges will stay in bad plans that will leave them bankrupt when they get sick…Landrieu’s bill will lead to a sicker, older risk pool…higher premiums are a real danger.

I asked Landrieu’s office for a response to criticism. Her office said her bill is better than the Republican fix, because her proposal does not allow new people to sign up for grandfathered plans, while the GOP one does. Her office told me this:

Unlike the Upton proposal in the House, Sen. Landrieu’s legislation would NOT allow new people to sign up for these grandfathered plans next year. Insurers would be required to continue these plans ONLY for people who already are on them and keep up with their payments. In addition, under Sen. Landrieu’s bill, insurers would be required to annually provide policyholders with information as to how their current plans fail to meet the new minimum coverage standards, such as laboratory services or hospitalization, as well as information on how they may be able to find better value coverage on the exchanges.

Many people may choose to sign up for plans on the exchanges once they have this information and know their options. But because no new people could sign up for these grandfathered plans, and over time grandfathered policyholders will likely seek better value and more comprehensive coverage, the number of grandfathered plans would decrease. 

Merkley’s office offered a similar claim. His aides told me the Senator thinks that many people who have the choice to remain on their current plans would ultimately opt for better insurance on the exchanges, anyway, because the info that the proposal requires insurers to make available would let them know better deals exist. The experts disagree; they seem convinced “millions” could remain off the exchanges, thanks to the proposal.

By the way, has anyone even established whether these proposals will get a Senate vote? No Senate Dem aides I spoke to today seemed to even know. Of course, that could change rapidly if Democrats continue glomming on to the fixes.

The policy details aside, go read Atrios and Digby, who both argue persuasively that — as I have been saying, too — that Democrats own Obamacare; that no amount of political positioning will change this; and that their best hope is to do all they can to make sure it works over the long term. Merkley and Landrieu, of course, insist that this is exactly what they are doing. The experts say No.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.