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An apologetic Obama unveils fix on health law

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior in Washington Novembe
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior in Washington Novembe

By Roberta Rampton and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday tried to ease the biggest crisis of his presidency, acknowledging missteps with his signature healthcare law and announcing a plan to help those seeing their current health plans canceled because of it.

Obama, trying to limit the political damage to his presidency and fellow Democrats, said health insurers could extend by at least one year policies due to be canceled because they do not comply with new minimum requirements under the law.

With insurers complaining the fix could create new problems and lead to higher premiums, it was not clear whether Obama's plan would actually work, or soothe his party's concerns that the botched rollout has undercut Democrats facing tough re-election fights in 2014.

A chastened Obama said he had "fumbled" the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, his biggest domestic policy achievement, and said he would have to work to regain his credibility and the public's trust.

"I hear you loud and clear," he told Americans who are angry he did not deliver on his repeated promises over the past three years that those who liked their plans could keep them.

"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this healthcare law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," Obama said, speaking from the podium in the White House press room.

The move was in response to a rising anger from Republicans and fellow Democrats over the prospect of several million Americans having their policies canceled.

The furor has reignited a broad debate about the benefits of the health system overhaul that was enacted in 2010 in the face of huge opposition from Republicans who view it as government overreach. It is the most sweeping social legislation since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid the 1960s.

The October 1 rollout of the program known as Obamacare has been beset by technical glitches with the federal online insurance website that allows consumers to shop for policies. In recent days the website's problems have been overshadowed by the snowballing controversy over the policy cancellations.

The Obama administration on Thursday left open the possibility of extending the one-year fix beyond 2014 but said companies must spell out how the policies are substandard and what alternatives are available.

Crucially, it will be up to state insurance commissioners to allow the Obamacare fix to go ahead, and it will be up to insurers whether to renew plans that have already been canceled.

Two insurance groups questioned Obama's proposed solution.

"Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers," said Karen Ignani, president and chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans, the lobbying arm of the insurance industry.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners said in a statement that it was unclear how Obama's proposal on canceled policies could be put into effect.

'DEEPLY RESPONSIBLE'

Obama's move was designed to short-circuit a push for more far-reaching changes in Congress and end a growing revolt by Democrats worried the cancellations, as well as the broken website, would threaten their re-election bids.

Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has introduced legislation to allow Americans to keep their existing health insurance plans, described Obama's announcement as a good first step but "we'll probably need legislation to make it stick."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also stopped short of a full endorsement of Obama's solution and said, "if we need to do more, we will."

Obama said he had let down Democratic supporters who put their political careers on the line to back his policy.

"There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this," Obama said. "I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them, rather than easier for them."

Obama told reporters the troubled website would work for most people by the end of the month, and that users will see a "marked and noticeable" improvement because of fixes to the software and hardware that runs it.

The Affordable Care Act aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans. It mandates that most Americans be enrolled for health coverage by March 31 or pay a fine.

On Thursday, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said he doubted Obama could fix the law with administrative changes. "The only way to fully protect the American people is to scrap this law once and for all."

The House will vote on Friday on a bill by Republican Fred Upton of Michigan to allow insurers to offer canceled plans, but Democrats objected it would undermine the market and drive premiums up by allowing insurers to offer plans to new customers. Democrats said they will offer their own alternative.

Enrollment figures released by the administration on Wednesday indicated that only 106,000 people have enrolled for health plans through the exchanges, a tiny fraction of the hoped-for millions.

The low figure, while expected because of technical glitches on the government website, showed how far the administration has to go to build an individual market of millions of consumers in 2014 to keep the healthcare program financially viable.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, David Morgan, Jeff Mason, Caroline Humer, Lewis Krauskopf; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)

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