Looking for a bright spot on the health care front after weeks of bad headlines, President Barack Obama traveled Wednesday to the birthplace of his Republican-inspired comprehensive plan – Massachusetts.
"The vast majority of citizens are happy with their coverage," Obama said to a crowd of about 800 packed into Faneuil Hall in Boston. "By the way, the parade of horribles, the worst predictions about health care reform in Massachusetts never came true. They are the same arguments you are hearing now."
Rather than dropping coverage, more businesses offered coverage to their employees; racial disparity in health insurance coverage decreased; and health insurance costs stayed on par with other regions rather than increased, Obama said.
The Affordable Care Act, modeled on the measure crafted by then Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and a Democratically-controlled legislature, also offers Americans a "patients' bill of rights," Obama said, which guarantees the insured all receive things like free preventive care, and bans on being dropped from coverage or a lifetime limit on benefits.
Obama did address the failure of the new online marketplace, healthcare.gov, which has been plagued with being slow and preventing people from signing up for health coverage, a requirement by March 31.
"The deal is good, the prices are low. But, let's face it we've had a problem – the website hasn't worked the way it's supposed to over the last couple of weeks," he said. "Eventually, this website – healthcare.gov – will be the easiest way to shop for and buy these new plans…But there's no denying it, right now the website is too slow and too many people have gotten stuck and I am not happy about it."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was similarly contrite during her appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
"You deserve better. I apologize," she told members, before getting grilled by Republican members for several hours.
But both Obama and Sebelius sought to assure the public things would get up and running soon.
"I am confident these marketplaces will work, because Massachusetts has shown that the model works," Obama said. He pointed to other states running their own marketplaces, such as Kentucky, Oregon and Arkansas, that have been met with great success.
Obama also pushed back against flak he's received about promising before the law went into effect that if people like their insurance, it would not change as a result of the law. Many news reports have documented stories of Americans who have received cancellation letters from their insurers. Obama explained that was because their coverage was so minimal, it did not meet the law's new standards.
"One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the underinsured," he said. "There are a number of Americans – fewer than 5 percent of Americans – who got cut-rate plans that don't offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident…so a lot of people thought they were buying coverage and it turned out not to be so good."
He argued that these were the kinds of plans dropping coverage for people already, based on their health deteriorating, or increased their premiums by double-digits if the person stayed on the plan for more than a year.
"If you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law and you really liked that plan, you are able to keep it; that's what I said when I was running for office, that was part of the promise we made," Obama said. "But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to upgrade or cancel these substandard plans, what we've said is under the law you have to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage because that too was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning."
Much of his speech took on a campaign rally feel, as he focused his energy on reminding people how dismal the insurance market had been before the ACA passed and made minimum federal standards for coverage. Pointing to insurance companies, Obama said, "They can't use allergies, or pregnancy or a sports injury or the fact that you're a woman to charge you more."
"We are just going to keep on working on it and grind it out – just like you did here in Massachusetts," he said. "The point is, we may have political disagreements . We do. Deep ones. But the people who elect us to serve, they shouldn't pay the price for those disagreements. We are in this together and we are going to see it through."