Obama fi­nally says he’s sorry for health care flubs

Repub­li­cans call for Se­be­lius fir­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR. BEN WOLF­GANG

Af­ter sidestep­ping the is­sue for weeks, Pres­i­dent Obama on Thurs­day apol­o­gized to Amer­i­cans who are los­ing their health insurance de­spite his re­peated and em­phatic prom­ises that it wouldn’t hap­pen.

The pres­i­dent made the ad­mis­sion on a day when Se­nate Repub­li­cans de­manded that he fire his top health of­fi­cial in re­sponse to “un­de­ni­able” prob­lems with Oba­macare’s roll­out and his White House fends off doubts that it can fix a balky web­site that is spoil­ing the health care law’s de­but.

“I am sorry that they are find­ing them­selves in this sit­u­a­tion based on as­sur­ances they got from me,” the pres­i­dent told NBC in an in­ter­view recorded at the White House on Thurs­day af­ter­noon. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we’re go­ing to do ev­ery­thing we can to deal with folks who find them­selves in a tough po­si­tion as a con­se­quence of this.”

Mr. Obama’s com­ments rep­re­sent some­thing of an about-face for the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which un­til now had ar­gued that Amer­i­cans were aware all along — or should have been aware — that Oba­macare would re­sult in many peo­ple los­ing poli­cies be­cause they don’t com­ply with the law’s stan­dards.

About 5 per­cent of Amer­i­cans — 14 mil­lion peo­ple — have plans through the in­di­vid­ual insurance mar­ket. As many as two-thirds of them could lose cov­er­age be­cause it does not com­ply with the pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture health care law. The sit­u­a­tion has led to a back­lash on Capi­tol Hill, with law­mak­ers on both sides of the aisle back­ing bills that would al­low con­sumers to keep their cov­er­age

no mat­ter what.

Some se­na­tors went fur­ther Thurs­day. Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Repub­li­can, and nine other law­mak­ers signed a let­ter that calls for Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Kath­leen Se­be­lius to lose her job over prob­lems with the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“Re­gret­tably, th­ese prob­lems were di­ag­nosed early and ig­nored,” the se­na­tors wrote, cit­ing in­spec­tor gen­eral re­ports from this year.

Com­pound­ing the tur­moil, a bi­par­ti­san pair of se­na­tors fol­lowed through on a pro­posal to post­pone the law’s in­di­vid­ual man­date for one year in light of the road­blocks to cov­er­age.

The man­date, which re­quires most Amer­i­cans to have health insurance next year, was placed in the law to en­sure that young, healthy con­sumers keep premi­ums in check when those with pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions en­roll be­cause they no longer can be de­nied cov­er­age.

“Since the Af­ford­able Care Act passed in 2010, there have been many iden­ti­fi­able prob­lems ex­posed in the law that need to be ad­dressed,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat, said in fil­ing the bill with Sen. Mark Kirk, Illi­nois Repub­li­can.

“We’ve worked through a few of th­ese is­sues, but our job in Congress is far from over. We need to start work­ing to­gether to fix this law and make it work so that all Amer­i­cans have ac­cess to af­ford­able and re­li­able health care cov­er­age,” the two men said.

The ris­ing dis­con­tent on Capi­tol Hill and Mr. Obama’s apol­ogy capped a week when the pres­i­dent was mas­sag­ing ear­lier state­ments by adding an “if” to his prom­ise, of­fered more than 30 times over the past sev­eral years, that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”

“If you had one of th­ese plans be­fore the Af­ford­able Care Act came into law and you re­ally liked that plan, what we said was, ‘You can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,’” Mr. Obama said ear­lier in the week.

No pre­vi­ous pub­lic state­ments con­tained the caveat that plans must re­main un­changed, but they of­ten were spiked with such em­phat­ics as “pe­riod” and “no mat­ter what.” The Poli­tifact fact-check­ing jour­nal­ism site gave Mr. Obama’s state­ments a “Pants on Fire” rat­ing.

Se­nate Democrats, sev­eral of whom face tough re- elec­tion bat­tles next year in Repub­li­can-lean­ing states, are in­creas­ingly ner­vous about the rocky roll­out of the law. The Af­ford­able Care Act essen­tially be­longs to their party be­cause they passed it with no Repub­li­can votes in Congress, cheered it on for three years and helped pre­cip­i­tate a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down last month by re­fus­ing Repub­li­can de­mands for a de­lay.

So far, none of them has called for Mrs. Se­be­lius to lose her job over the sit­u­a­tion. Repub­li­cans have not been so shy.

Mr. Roberts — who knows Mrs. Se­be­lius per­son­ally from their shared home state of Kansas — and co-sign­ers of his let­ter out­lined a litany of prob­lems with Health­Care.gov, a web­site that was sup­posed to con­nect res­i­dents of 36 states with health plans on the in­di­vid­ual mar­ket but has fre­quently crashed since its Oct. 1 de­but.

The online por­tal has strug­gled to trans­mit ac­cu­rate re­ports to in­sur­ers, and doubts about the site’s tech­ni­cal safe­guards have per­sisted de­spite the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pledge that the sys­tem is se­cure.

Mr. Obama has of­fered no in­di­ca­tion he will oust Mrs. Se­be­lius. In­stead, the ad­min­is­tra­tion says it is fo­cused on mak­ing Health­Care.gov work for the “vast ma­jor­ity” of users by the end of the month.

Mrs. Se­be­lius, who said she is ac­count­able for Oba­macare’s roll­out fail­ures but re­fused to re­sign, will travel to At­lanta on Fri­day to pro­mote Oba­macare and meet with in-per­son as­sis­tants who are help­ing peo­ple en­roll in health cov­er­age. Her trip fol­lows Mr. Obama’s jaunt to Texas on Wed­nes­day to urge re­luc­tant state of­fi­cials to ex­pand Med­i­caid en­roll­ment to peo­ple mak­ing up to 138 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty level.

Mrs. Se­be­lius is com­ing off a pair of bruis­ing hear­ings on Capi­tol Hill, where she dou­bled down on the im­por­tance of the health care law for sick Amer­i­cans who may gain insurance for the first time.

But Repub­li­can law­mak­ers say the re­forms are fun­da­men­tally flawed. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are los­ing health care plans that do not meet min­i­mum-cov­er­age stan­dards un­der Oba­macare, and they can­not ex­plore al­ter­na­tives if the online por­tals are not work­ing.

Th­ese cus­tomers might be able to find bet­ter cov­er­age at a bet­ter price un­der Oba­macare’s ex­changes, which of­fer in­come-based sub­si­dies to de­fray pre­mium costs, but they would have to sign up by Dec. 15 to have cov­er­age be­fore next year.

“Th­ese peo­ple could be left with­out any insurance at all if the ex­change sys­tems are not work­ing soon,” Mr. Roberts and fel­low law­mak­ers wrote.

Julie Bataille, spokes­woman for the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Med­i­caid, said Thurs­day she thinks the web­site will run well enough by late this month to give con­sumers enough time to en­roll. She also down­played talk of ex­tend­ing Oba­macare’s six-month en­roll­ment pe­riod past March 31.

“That is cer­tainly a long win­dow of time for in­di­vid­u­als to get in­for­ma­tion, get ed­u­cated and make their plan se­lec­tion by the end of March,” she told re­porters on a con­fer­ence call.

CMS has un­til the end of busi­ness Fri­day to re­spond to a sub­poena from House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Repub­li­cans that de­mands fig­ures on how many peo­ple have en­rolled so far un­der Oba­macare, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion has said re­peat­edly that it will not re­lease the data un­til “mid-Novem­ber.”

A com­mit­tee spokes­woman said Chair­man Dave Camp, Michi­gan Repub­li­can, had not re­ceived any­thing as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

White House spokesman Jay Car­ney said the sub­poena ap­peared to be a po­lit­i­cal ploy de­signed to twist the knife over dis­mal en­roll­ment.

“If the pur­pose is to point out, which I’m sure it is, that en­roll­ment num­bers will be low for Oc­to­ber — take it from me, they’ll be low in Oc­to­ber,” he said. moves quickly to es­tab­lish work­able op­er­at­ing reg­u­la­tions and safe­guards.

The im­pend­ing boom has raised con­cerns among pri­vacy ad­vo­cates about how and where drones might be used to col­lect data. The FAA is re­quir­ing fu­ture test sites to de­velop pri­vacy plans and make them avail­able to the pub­lic. The pol­icy also re­quires test site op­er­a­tors to dis­close how data will be ob­tained and used.

“Make no mis­take about it, pri­vacy is an ex­tremely im­por­tant is­sue and it is some­thing that the pub­lic has a sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est and con­cern over and we need to rec­og­nize as an in­dus­try that if we are go­ing to take full ad­van­tage of the ben­e­fits that we are talk­ing about for th­ese tech­nolo­gies we need to be re­spon­sive to the pub­lic’s con­cerns about pri­vacy,” Mr. Huerta said.

Christo­pher Cal­abrese, Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union leg­isla­tive coun­sel, told The Wash­ing­ton Times that while the FAA’s re­quire­ment for pub­lic dis­clo­sure of data and re­ten­tion poli­cies are needed and wel­come, the safe­guards do not go far enough.

“It’s cru­cial that as we move for­ward with drone use, those pro­ce­dural pro­tec­tions are fol­lowed by con­crete re­stric­tions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored. Congress must also weigh in on ar­eas out­side of the FAA’s au­thor­ity, such as use by law en­force­ment and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, which have the abil­ity to use drones for in­va­sive sur­veil­lance that must be kept in check,” Mr. Cal­abrese said.

Leg­is­la­tion has been in­tro­duced by Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, and Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Repub­li­can, and Rep. Zoe Lof­gren, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat. If passed, this leg­is­la­tion would re­quire law en­force­ment agen­cies to ob­tain war­rants be­fore us­ing drones to col­lect sur­veil­lance data on U.S. soil. “Peo­ple are re­ally wor­ried about drone use. You see it in a huge num­ber of state bills and laws, and I think the FAA needs to un­der­stand that if they don’t ad­dress pri­vacy is­sues then drones are not go­ing to be a use­ful tech­nol­ogy,” he said. “Pri­vacy can’t be swept un­der the rug.”

Mr. Huerta told re­porters af­ter his ad­dress that there was not a fast-track ap­pli­ca­tion process for par­tic­u­lar agen­cies — such as law en­force­ment — look­ing to ap­ply for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to op­er­ate un­manned air­craft.

“Our cur­rent pol­icy pro­vides for any pub­lic user that would like to ap­ply for a cer­tifi­cate of op­er­a­tion to op­er­ate un­manned air­craft within na­tional airspace, they are free to ap­ply…,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say we have a par­tic­u­lar pri­or­ity one way or the other.”

Mr. Huerta did al­lude to pos­si­ble ex­cep­tions for law en­force­ment agen­cies to use small un­manned air­craft sys­tems but stressed that the FAA was look­ing into how to stream­line the ap­pli­ca­tion process in a way that en­sures safe in­te­gra­tion into the sys­tem and said ap­prox­i­mately 80 law en­force­ment agen­cies al­ready op­er­ate un­manned air­craft un­der spe­cial cer­tifi­cates of au­tho­riza­tion.

The FAA re­leased an in­te­gra­tion road map and com­pre­hen­sive plan on its web­site Thurs­day.

Both doc­u­ments lay out steps for un­manned air­craft in­te­gra­tion by 2015. Set­ting up test sites for un­manned air­craft is the next step on the path to in­te­gra­tion, and bid­ding from states to host the sites has been spir­ited.

“By the end of the year, we plan to choose six test sites for civil un­manned air­craft. Congress re­quired us to do so, and we need to make sure we use th­ese sites to ob­tain the best data that we can,” Mr. Huerta said.

The FAA has re­ceived 25 ap­pli­ca­tions for test sights rep­re­sent­ing 26 states.

The drone in­dus­try, which has pushed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to speed reg­u­la­tions to clear the way for more com­mer­cial uses, called the FAA’s moves “an im­por­tant step.”

“From ad­vanc­ing sci­en­tific re­search and re­spond­ing to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters to lo­cat­ing miss­ing per­sons and help­ing to fight wild­fires, [drones] can save time, save money, and, most im­por­tantly, save lives,” said a state­ment by Michael Toscano, pres­i­dent and CEO of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Sys­tems.

Mr. Toscano noted that the FAA’s an­nounce­ments were bet­ter late than never as the FAA has missed ev­ery dead­line laid out for drone in­te­gra­tion in the reau­tho­riza­tion act. How­ever, they have had to cope with sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing cuts from se­ques­tra­tion and gov­ern­ment shut­downs. “Ev­ery day that we don’t fly in na­tional airspace, we lose be­tween $27 to $30 mil­lion of eco­nomic rev­enue,” he said.

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