PLATTSBURGH — North Country Congressman Bill Owens says the president definitely has made some mistakes regarding the Affordable Care Act, but the law is still worth salvaging.
Many Americans have voiced their frustration in recent weeks over the new health-insurance system, commonly known as Obamacare.
Unworkable websites, accusations of lies from the White House about whether people would lose their health insurance and battles in Congress over whether the legislation should be repealed have dominated conversations.
Owens (D-Plattsburgh) has been in the midst of much of that discourse as his vote on the plan in early 2010 was seen as instrumental in passing the bill.
The Press-Republican sat down with the congressman recently for an in-depth discussion about Obamacare and how it is all unfolding.
What is your view on how the Affordable Care Act has been handled so far?
Owens: “Clearly, from my perspective, they (the Obama administration) did an absolutely horrible job of implementation. It was not managed well. They didn’t have the right people doing the job.
“They seemed to have gotten it corrected. I understand the first three days of December more people enrolled than had enrolled in the prior 60 days. I saw some reports today from some insurance companies saying that there clearly has been a significant uptick in enrollment.
“Assuming that pattern continues, they should come close to their goals for enrollment.”
There is still a lot of work to do, isn’t there, having to enroll 7 million people by next April 1?
Owens: “There is, but if they are accurate about what they are saying about the website, it can process 50,000 people a day, and that’s 350,000 a week, and if you do that for 10 to 12 weeks, that puts you in the 4 to 5 million range — if it works.
“Again, they simply did a terrible job of implementation.”
What about the whole “if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance” issue?
Owens: “That clearly was another mistake made by the president, exacerbated by the fact that the website didn’t work. The reason that exacerbated it — I will give you two examples. I had two people speak to me, and in both cases they got cancellation notices. They were in New York, and that also makes a difference. They got cancellations, got very angry, went to the website and got better and cheaper insurance. It worked in that case because it was the New York website they went to.
“Did he (the president) make a mistake when he said it? Clearly, he did. But why I say it was exacerbated is because if you got a cancellation notice, you might be angry, but if you went to the website and were able to get something better and cheaper, your anger would at least be diminished. It might not go away, but at least it would be diminished, but it is still a problem.”
You claimed to be one of the few in Congress that actually read all 2,500 pages of the Affordable Care Act before voting on it. Did you not see the portion that would require so many people to actually lose their health insurance?
Owens: “It is in there. If you read the actual statutory language, what it says is that no individual will be compelled to terminate their insurance.
“What’s happening now is people are not electing to terminate their insurance; the insurance companies are terminating it.
“So the literal language of the statute was accurate. The problem is that you had to follow the logic through, if you will, of what would happen when these new policies came out.
“When I read that, I read it in this context, and said, ‘OK, I understand that,’ but every year that I ran my law firm and looked at insurance policies, they changed every year. So that is going to happen now, too. So that’s how I interpreted it.
“The mental process I went through was, ‘Oh, this is what the language says, and I know from my own experience every year the policy
So it wasn’t a red flag at the time?
Owens: “Not at that point because, again, I was reading it from the point of view of a person who dealt with it (health insurance) all the time, not from a point of view of somebody who never dealt with it. I had a different view of it.
“I don’t know how I would have interpreted it if had I not had that experience. I honestly don’t know.
“But don’t forget, I also had the whole experience of representing the hospital (CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh) for 27 years, so my level of knowledge was a bit higher, and I understood the concepts. I think.”
So what is going to happen now, and what should happen?
Owens: “What I’ve always said from the day I voted for it was that this thing was going to need to be tweaked. We should be doing tweaks.
“There is any number of things we could do. We could allow for a transition period for people to maintain their insurance and then move over, but that has to be in the context of what impact is that going to have on the insurance companies that already put plans out there.
“They (insurance companies) have terminated these plans, they have not filed with the insurance commissioners to continue them, so can you even mechanically make it happen?
“We are hearing from different states, and some are saying there is no way mechanically we can make this happen. So there isn’t a clear fix in my mind. Not a clear easy fix.
“In relative terms, the real answer to me is making sure you get the website up and functioning so those people who got cancellation notices can, in fact, hopefully get — and I want to emphasize this — hopefully get a better, cheaper plan.
“But that is going to depend, in large measure, where people live. In the individual market in New York, people are seeing decreases in prices of almost 50 percent. I don’t know whether that is going to be true in Montana or in Alabama, but in the New York market it’s true, and I think it is also true in California and in Massachusetts.
“People are actually seeing a decline in cost with better coverage. All that stuff (pre-existing conditions) included and cheaper.”
Members of Congress have been criticized for getting special treatment when it comes to their own health-care plans. What’s your take on that?
Owens: “I have to buy my insurance through the Washington, D.C., exchange. I just completed that yesterday.
“So when I go on there, I pick a policy, and the government is going to pay a portion of that premium, just like it does now, and just like it did before, and just like most employers do for their employees who have health insurance.
“From my perspective, I’m looking and saying this is consistent with most people who are employed and have their coverage.”
The perception is that (Congress members) are taking better care of themselves than the rest of the public. What about that?
Owens: “I went through it just like everybody else. I went on and did it myself. I took my own plan out and looked at them all about two weeks ago.
“I did a comparison to my existing plan and did a comparison of the plan Jane (his wife) might potentially get through her employer, and we made a selection. I went online yesterday and did the enrollment process.
“It was only difficult because the D.C. website went down two or three times while I was doing it. In the aggregate, it probably took me about an hour of actual online time.”
Are you paying the same as everybody else?
Owens: “I’m paying the same rates as a small business would pay because we are in the small-business-shop plan. I am paying the same rates that a small-business owner in Washington, D.C., and his or her employees are paying.
“My cost for my insurance went up by about $300 (per month). I got a benefit for it — I got a lower deductible.”
Republicans have called for repeal and reform, and yet you have often said you have not seen any valid replacement plans. Is that still the case?
Owens: “Not that I’ve seen. The only thing that has been thrown out there are concepts. There has never been a bill or a piece of legislation that would detail exactly what they would do if they repealed and replaced it.”
So it’s just rhetoric?
Owens: “I think it is, and it is very difficult rhetoric because the fact of the matter is, you can’t keep kids up to age 26, you can’t eliminate pre-existing conditions and not expand your coverage pool.
“You couldn’t do it economically from any kind of an analysis. If you go all the way back to Nixon in the early ‘70s, they knew, actuarially, that if you were going to do this kind of coverage, you had to include more people so you had a bigger pool.
“One of the other things Republicans are saying consistently is that this is going to kill employment and will create all kinds of unemployment problems. Well, a report came out yesterday that the unemployment rate is down to 7 percent, and we created 203,000 jobs. So the facts are not lining up with their arguments ...
“When you look at it from the 40,000-foot level, even with all the problems, the economy is still going the right way. So all the predictions of doom are not coming true.
“I never believed the law would work Day 1. This is a couple-years process to get health-care costs under control and get better outcomes.”
Knowing what you know now would you still vote for Obamacare?
Owens: “Yes. Because we had to move forward in some way. What I would have preferred to have happened is that, as issues came up and the administration was drafting regulations, that we amended the law to deal with a wide variety of issues as they were implementing it.”
But Republicans have been arguing that the president has already made so many executive orders amending the plan, which many say is improper.
Owens: “I would only say to you that if that were true, they have not been shy about suing, and they haven’t sued on those regulatory issues ... The courts, over the last 40 years, have given great discretion to the executive branch in implementing statutes through regulations, and the clear evidence to me is that if Republicans are not suing, they are recognizing the fact that the courts are not likely to overturn these regulations. That’s my interpretation of what is happening.”
What grade would give Obamacare right now?
Owens: “I would give it a B. I think it is conceptually still the right direction, but I think it’s been implemented very poorly.”
Because it has been implemented poorly, the public’s confidence in the administration has gone way down. Are you concerned about that?
Owens: “It (public confidence in the president) clearly has taken a hit, but if confidence was so eroded, why do we see job growth going at the rate it is and the unemployment rate going in the other direction and the stock market going up?
“You can’t make the argument that the country is in the state of panic when all of these other factors are going in the other direction.
“People have concerns about it — and they should — but there are other factors that say we are still seeing the economy getting better.”
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