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Democrats Join Calls To Rectify Canceled Health Insurance

People protest President Obama's "If you like your insurance you can keep it" comment during a presidential visit to Dallas last week.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
People protest President Obama's "If you like your insurance you can keep it" comment during a presidential visit to Dallas last week.

In Washington this week, calls to fix the problem of people getting insurance cancellation notices are getting louder and coming from all sides. But turning back the clock on health insurance cancellations turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.

Republicans have been blasting the president for weeks about breaking his promise that people would be able to keep their insurance policies. Later this week, the GOP-led House will vote on a bill called the Keep Your Health Plan Act.

What's changing is that Democrats are now starting to join the chorus.

Last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who's facing a tough re-election bid next fall, introduced legislation aimed at letting more people keep their plans.

"We said to people: If you had insurance that you liked you could keep it," she said on the Senate floor. "We didn't say: If you had insurance that you liked that didn't meet the minimum standards, or met the minimum standards, you could keep it. We just said, and the president said, over and over, 'If you have insurance and you like the insurance you have, you can keep it.' That is the single focus of my bill."

On Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton, who's been dubbed the explainer in chief for the health law, added his backing.

"I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, that the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got," he said in an interview with the online magazine

Even President Obama himself has hinted that he wants to do something about the problem of people getting their policies canceled.

"I am deeply concerned about it," he told NBC's Chuck Todd last week, "and I have assigned my team to see what we can do to close some of the holes and gaps in the law."

So far, though, the administration hasn't proposed anything specific for those people in the individual insurance market getting cancellation notices. And there's a good reason for that, say industry experts. The bottom line is that it's simply too late to undo those canceled policies.

"It's not at all feasible," says Robert Laszewski, president of the consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates. "It would be wonderful. I'm one of the people who got my policy canceled. I would like to keep it, but we can't get that fix in place in 45 days."

That 45 days is between now and Jan. 1, when the new standards under the Affordable Care Act kick in. Laszewski says the insurance industry has spent most of the past year getting ready for this. They've rewritten policies, gotten them approved by state regulators, and found and updated information with their policyholders.

"Even if you decide to go 'never mind' about all these cancellations," he says, "how is the insurance company going to send out letters to all these people within the space of a couple of weeks, rejigger all of their computer systems that took months to redo in the first place, and get these people to decide whether they want to try for Obamacare, which is the only place they can get subsidies, or try to stay on their own policies?"

Joel Ario, managing director at the consulting firm Manatt Health Solutions, isn't quite so negative. He says that just this week in California, two insurers have agreed to continue to offer some existing plans, at least temporarily. But that's a bit of a different situation, he says, because they settled with the state's insurance commissioner.

"Their earlier cancellations were not proper under California law," says Ario, "and they are extending their policies — in one case [by] another couple months, and in another case [by] three months. So clearly it can be done by the carriers to extend current coverages."

But Ario, who earlier headed the federal government's health exchange program, says if the insurance companies did everything correctly, it wouldn't be fair to require them to extend their current policies at their current rates.

"If they were to continue coverages, they would ask for a rate increase," he says. "Typically in the individual market there are significant rate increases on a year-to-year basis."

Many people would actually do better financially in the exchanges with a tax credit, Ario says, rather than stick with their current policy with an inflation increase. They just don't realize that because they haven't been able to get on the website yet to see.

Which brings the question back to where the Affordable Care Act has been since October: Can the federal government get its balky website up and running at full strength fast enough for a critical mass of those canceled policyholders to figure out they might be OK after all?

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