Sen. Hagan, like other Democrats, on the health care hot seat

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 - 4:53 pm

Republicans working to eject Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., from her Senate seat say she was dishonest when she said that people could keep their health care plans.

On Wednesday, Hagan responded by saying that it was the insurance companies who weren’t being upfront.

“It wasn’t clear – and it’s very disappointing – that for the last three years insurance companies continued to sell plans that didn’t meet the basic standards of the law and didn’t tell consumers that those plans would be canceled,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in a statement.

The first-term Democrat has declined to respond to questions about when she knew that policies would be canceled. She was a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, one of two Senate committees that drafted versions of the health care law in 2009.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group for the health insurance industry, said in response to Hagan’s view that the final regulations on the new benefit requirements were not finalized until earlier this year. “Health plans give consumers the option to purchase the coverage that best meets their needs,” he said in an email. “Our industry has warned for years that the reform law was going to require consumers to purchase polices that are far broader and more expensive then the high-quality, affordable coverage they like and rely on today.”

Political analysts say Hagan and other Democratic senators running for re-election next year are taking a beating over the health care law, particularly in light of the extended problems with its launch and the controversy over canceled policies. But opinions diverge over how much it will matter a year from now.

Republicans say the allegations of dishonesty will stick. Democrats say much could change, and the storm over the law isn’t so certain to linger that long once the rollout problems are fixed and consumers are able to enroll without difficulty.

North Carolina Republican Party spokesman Daniel Keylin issued a statement Tuesday that said Hagan’s support was “tanking.” Keylin this week listed 21 times in 2009 and again on her official website that Hagan assured her constituents that they could keep their plans. The Republican spokesman called it her “deceptive line.”

David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh, said that Hagan’s support has dropped as a result of the attacks over the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, but that it was premature to read too much into that now.

Like most members of Congress, she wasn’t an expert in the minute details of the law, he said, adding, “We’re playing Monday morning quarterback here with the issue.”

If the health insurance portal, HealthCare.gov, hadn’t encountered technical problems that made it unusable for many in its early weeks, the issue wouldn’t have gotten so big, he said.

“If we’re looking at this today or in the next couple days, Democrats should wring their hands and worry,” he said, but added that if the rollout improves over the next few and months – the enrollment deadline is March 31, 2014 – attention could shift to other issues.

Republicans, however, are focused on the present.

“I think Hagan is in real trouble. Her own words are her worst enemy,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican consultant in North Carolina. “It’s a pocketbook issue and a health issue that hurts businesses and families.”

Weiner, Hagan’s spokeswoman, in her response to the controversy, said Hagan “shares the frustrations of North Carolinians who aren’t able to access the website to shop for plans and see if they can get a tax credit, and she supports a sensible bill to let people stay on their current plans.”

Hagan has called for a longer enrollment period and supported a proposed law that would let people keep their insurance plans. Last week, Obama offered to allow policy holders to keep their existing plans for a year, although states would have to approve it. North Carolina’s insurance officials agreed to do so.

“Senator Hagan is listening to North Carolinians who want to fix this law and make it work better, but her opponents and the special interests want to take us back to when you could get dropped from your insurance if you got sick and women could be charged more than men for coverage,” Weiner added.

The Affordable Care Act bans discrimination by insurance companies because of pre-existing conditions. It also does not allow insurance companies to put limits on benefits, and it adds benefits such as mental health and maternity care. Some people will qualify for tax credits to help lower their insurance premiums. Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic consultant, said Democrats should let the health care reforms play out. Changing the law too much could undermine it, he said.

“It’s a firestorm now,” he said. “I don’t think the electorate will vote based on Obamacare a year from now.”

The Senate’s Health and Finance committees both worked on versions of the bill in 2009. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., combined the bills and brought them up for a vote in December 2009. Cancellations of plans on individual markets were the result of regulations in 2010 to implement the law’s grandfather clause, which said that plans in place before the law was passed could continue if there were virtually no changes in them from year to year.

Republicans also pointed to a statement by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a televised interview Sunday about the health care rollout. She appeared to say, referring to Senate Democrats, that “We all knew” that some people had been “misled” about being able to keep their policies. The National Republican Senatorial Committee cited her comment on Tuesday to bolster their claim that Democrats knew in advance Americans would lose their health plans.

What Gillibrand said in the interview on ABC’s This Week is unclear. Her spokeswoman, Bethany Lesser said Wednesday that her quote has been taken out of context “by those on the right who want the law scrapped entirely.”

Thomas Eamon, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Carolina University, said that people in the middle of the political spectrum, whose support Hagan will need in the race, will judge the health care law on whether it helps or hurts them.

“I think the consensus at the moment is it will hurt,” he said, “and that’s what she has to overcome in the coming weeks, months and year.”


Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

Read more articles by Renee Schoof



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