Is President Obama’s “fix” to the health-care rollout more about politics than substance?

(Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe)
(Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe)

Probably, but not for the reasons that some Republican commentators spun up shortly after news of the plan leaked out.

Obama’s plan is to allow insurance companies to extend certain health-care policies that don’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s minimum standards, offering a one-year reprieve to people upset about the cancellation notices their insurers sent them over the past several weeks.

“Why only a year?” Sean Hannity asked of the president’s plan. “Because he wants to get past the midterms.”

“One year from now is when an election occurs, and conveniently, the delay would occur right after the election,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer. “So all of these 2014 Democrats that are running for the hills right now would get a one-year reprieve until after their election.”

Actually, the political timing could be worse for the Democrats under the president’s plan. Federal law requires insurers to give customers 90 days’ notice before canceling their insurance policies. That is why so many cancellation letters have gone out over the past couple months; insurance companies have been sending notice that plans up for renewal at the beginning of next year will terminate then instead. Under the president’s new policy, renewed plans would presumably expire on the same date, just shifted forward a year. So one would expect a similar wave of cancellation letters to hit right before next November’s midterm elections, not right after.

That possibility could encourage the White House to offer another extension next year, before the wave would hit, in which case Hannity and Spicer’s accusation would be a plausible explanation for the second time shift.

The calendar could also indicate that the White House doesn’t expect many people will end up renewing their noncompliant plans under its new scheme. Even though the Obama administration has given permission, state regulators might not allow it, insurance companies might not want to revive plans they were in the process of winding down and lots of customers might move on to different policies anyway. The practical effect of the president’s “fix” is likely to be small.

For now, the desired political effect seems to be twofold. First, it might relieve some of the pressure Democrats in Congress feel to approve worse “fixes” that would undermine the new health-care insurance system. Second, it might enable Democrats to shift blame onto state regulators or insurance companies for this year’s cancellations. The first is understandable. The second is not.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.