WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton said President Obama should accept changes to his health-care law if that’s what it takes to fulfill his promise that Americans who like their health insurance can keep it.
Clinton stepped into the debate over how to fix the flawed rollout of a central element of the law days before a vote in the Republican-controlled House on a measure that would let individuals keep their health-care plans into next year without penalty.
“Even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they’ve got,” Clinton said in an interview posted Tuesday by Ozy.com, a media startup backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Obama’s pledge was a central selling point of his health- care law, aimed at calming consumers concerned that they would be forced to give up their policies and doctors as the program expanded coverage to many of the nation’s 48 million uninsured. As the enrollment period opened, hundreds of thousands of Americans received notices from their insurers that their policies were being canceled because they didn’t meet the standards set under the law.
Republicans seized on Clinton’s remarks. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said the comments “signify a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage under President Obama’s health care law.”
While Clinton generally praised the health care law, Boehner called it “a train wreck that needs to go.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated that the administration was looking at options “that would address this problem” administratively.
He declined to say whether Obama would be open to legislation that changed the law.
“I’m not going to get into specifics about avenues that might be available to the president,” Carney said.
The insurance cancellations for a portion of people who buy policies on the open market came on top of technical faults with the federal website intended to serve as the portal to insurance marketplaces for 36 states that don’t have their own.
The website flaws have hobbled the start of the six-month enrollment period that began Oct. 1, and the administration said it expects that the number of people who get policies through the exchanges will be lower than expected. The Wall Street Journal, citing two unidentified people familiar with the matter, reported that fewer than 50,000 people had successfully signed up for an insurance plan.
Carney said he couldn’t confirm that number and said the administration plans to release enrollment data by the end of the week.
Even as Clinton — a Democrat, like Obama — highlighted a flaw that has embarrassed the administration, the former president said that “the big lesson is that we’re better off with this law than without it.”
Clinton said younger, healthy Americans who bought policies on the individual market and earn incomes above 400 percent of the poverty level are primarily affected by the insurance cancellations.
Obama said in a Nov. 7 interview with NBC News that he’s “sorry” that some Americans are “finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”
The administration is coming under pressure from some Democrats as well as Republicans to either extend the enrollment period or delay the imposition of penalties for people who don’t have insurance by the deadline.
White House staff members met last week with representatives of top House Democrats to discuss ideas for changes that wouldn’t require legislation. Republican attempts to strip funding for the law led to a budget standoff that caused a 16-day partial shutdown of the government last month.
The House is poised to vote Nov. 15 on a proposal to let individuals keep their health-care plans into next year without penalty. The bill would grandfather plans in effect as of Jan. 1, 2013, to satisfy the 2010 law’s requirements that insurance plans offer minimum essential coverage.
Carney said the House bill would undermine the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, by letting some insurers continue selling plans that don’t meet the standards set under the law.
Two Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also have made proposals to address signup delays and canceled policies.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a close Obama ally and the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, said he doesn’t support the proposal from Landrieu, who is up for re-election next year, to let Americans keep their current insurance. He said he’s concerned about the health-care law hurting Democrats on the 2014 ballot, “but the election isn’t tomorrow.”
“We’ve been counseled to show patience and we’ve done it,” Durbin said, referring to administration officials. “We will continue to do it because of our confidence that they recognize a problem and they’re fixing it.”
Republicans are making the difficulties with the rollout of Obamacare an issue heading into the midterm congressional elections. Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats, compared with 14 for Republicans, who need at least a six-seat net pickup to gain the chamber’s majority for the first time in eight years. Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to take control of the House.
— With assistance from Roxana Tiron, Julianna Goldman and Michael C. Bender in Washington.