White House ramps up effort to sell Obamacare

The White House is dramatically expanding its efforts to sell the Affordable Care Act, hiring additional staffers, formulating a public-relations strategy and reaching out to key lawmakers as the new health-insurance system prepares to launch in coming months.

The administration’s push comes as Republican leaders signal their intent to focus on the law’s implementation, and any problems it encounters, in their quest to retake the Senate and maintain their House advantage in 2014.

GOP lawmakers announced Tuesday that they will hold hearings on the administration’s decision to delay the law’s requirement that large employers provide health-care coverage for workers. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also vowed to hold a House vote this month to delay key elements of the law, commonly known as Obamacare.

The White House and its congressional allies, for their part, are attempting to minimize problems as the law reaches a critical stage. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spends at least a couple of hours a day working on implementation, regularly reaching out to congressional Democrats to see what questions they need answered to spread the word about the law back home, according to several people involved in the discussions.

The administration is holding a Google hangout Wednesday to promote its enrollment Web site, and by the end of the week, it will announce at least two new White House appointees who will work on Obamacare, including Chris Jennings, President Bill Clinton’s former chief health-care policy adviser.

See how the states have sided on some of the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare also came up during a meeting Tuesday between members of the Congressional Black Caucus and President Obama, who is briefed weekly about the law’s rollout.

The issue erupted in Washington this month after the administration announced it was delaying a requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees offer a minimal level of health-care coverage, one of several recent changes.

Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), who has served as a key liaison to the White House, said the delays “signify an administration that’s listening to practical problems and is trying to address them and solve them.”

But Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), whose House committee will hold a July 18 hearing on several aspects of the law, said Obamacare is “simply not ready” to take full effect in October, when open enrollment begins in states across the country. In addition to delaying the employer mandate, the administration also issued rules Friday delaying until 2015 a requirement that new insurance marketplaces verify consumers’ income and health-insurance status.

“If Americans are taking a careful look at it, they will see the administration is beginning to admit the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has some serious problems,” Murphy said, adding that the administration “is focusing on the advertising on this” rather than substantive issues.

Independent groups on both sides have begun escalating their campaigns this week. On Tuesday, Americans for Prosperity, a prominent conservative group, started airing a $700,000 ad buy on broadcast and cable networks in Virginia and Ohio in which a pregnant mother raised concerns about the potential problems her son could face getting insurance under the law.

At the same time, Organizing for Action (OFA), the successor to Obama’s presidential campaign, just launched its second ad as part of a $1 million summer campaign promoting the benefits of Obamacare. The new spot features a child named Zoe who had open-heart surgery as a newborn and no longer faces lifetime limits on insurance coverage.

OFA Executive Director Jon Carson said the group was “arming our volunteers with the facts” and would conduct trainings for “thousands of people” this month so they could explain to their neighbors and friends why it made sense to enroll in the new program.

“Clearly, right now, there are other forces out there, other groups trying to tear this law down,” Carson said.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, who directed the White House Office of Health Reform for two years before serving as its deputy chief of staff for policy from February 2011 to January 2013, said the Department of Health and Human Services and other key agencies are well-prepared to help enlist millions of Americans in the new system starting Oct. 1.

“We’re 75 days out from the beginning of open enrollment, and this is in the hands of HHS, Treasury and Labor, and I think they’re ready,” DeParle said. “The IT behind the marketplace and the exchanges is done, it’s in final testing. The policy is done. What remains is the education, outreach and enrollment.”

On Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to outline how the government will reach out to uninsured Americans through community health centers.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, said his group’s members “are doing everything they can to make sure implementation goes as smoothly as possible.” But he said it remains unclear whether all the computer systems will be able to interface by October.

“There’s still a lot that needs to be done to get these systems ready to go before open enrollment begins,” he said.

As the administration presses ahead with its enrollment effort, Boehner and other GOP leaders are pushing the administration to jettison the law’s requirement, known as the individual mandate, that most Americans sign up for insurance or pay a penalty.

“Your decision to delay one part of the law affecting employers and leave in place provisions regulating individual and family health care creates many new questions and concerns,” Republican leaders wrote in a letter Tuesday. “We agree with you that the burden was overwhelming for employers, but we also believe American families need the same relief.”

A push to remove the individual mandate would undercut the law’s central objective to expand coverage in the United States, experts said. In Massachusetts, a 2006 health-reform law that served as the model for Obamacare increased employer-based coverage largely because residents heeded the requirement to sign up, according to an analysis by the PwC Health Research Institute.

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