POLITICS
10/30/2013 08:04 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2013

Another Obamacare Deadline Blunder Is Worrying Democrats

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats facing reelection next year aren't just fretting about a balky website and President Barack Obama's misleading campaign statements on health care. Now they've begun worrying about another deadline a year away.

According to an Affordable Care Act timetable established by administration officials, early next October insurance companies will announce their new menu of health care plans for the ACA marketplaces -- plans that may be more varied and numerous than those offered this year, but that almost certainly will come with higher prices.

The likely price hikes will hit the individual and small-business insurance markets only weeks before Election Day on Nov. 4, 2014.

"What genius came up with that timetable?" asked one key Democrat, who declined to be quoted by name because he is involved in private White House talks.

Democratic senators and their political advisers have been lobbying the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to push back the next "open season" date until after the election, to no avail.

The concern about the 2014 timetable highlights a fundamental political reality of Obamacare: The success or failure of the program depends largely on the kindness of strangers -- the insurance companies -- and whatever happens in the marketplace, for good or ill, will be ascribed to President Obama and the Democrats, since Republicans refused to vote for the law or cooperate in efforts to make it work.

The president's job approval rating is already down to 42 percent in the new NBC poll, the lowest of his presidency in that survey.

"People are going to compare the world as it existed before Obamacare to the world that exists after it," said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman. "Some of the resulting judgments they make aren't going to be fair. Rates in many places and for many people will rise and would have risen with or without the new program, but voters will tend to look to Obamacare one way or the other."

"Luckily," Mellman added, "we have the Republicans out there to make us look good by comparison."

But that is not enough to entirely allay the Democrats' fears. Eleven Senate Democrats, most of them running for reelection in 2014, have asked the administration to postpone the deadline for obtaining individual insurance past the current date of March 31, given the problems with the Obamacare website.

They haven't received an official response but have been told that the deadline can't be pushed back. To do so, the senators have been told, would actually increase the likelihood of major price hikes next October. The theory is that extending the deadline would lead to even more sick people signing up, while young, healthy people would remain skeptical and wary of the program.

It's not clear that the 11 senators really expect a deadline change or whether they are asking for it simply to show voters back home that they're concerned. Administration officials also contend that extending the deadline would require legislation -- and that putting such a bill on the Senate and House floors would invite other amendments and give Republicans a chance to dismantle the program.

Democrats weren't pleased with the spate of stories about how the president, at best, oversimplified his campaign-season assurances about the program. But there was little they could do, and they largely kept mum on that fraught topic.

They were left to explain -- correctly -- that the coverage that individuals are losing now was, for the most part, barely coverage at all. And they are reminding all who will listen that the vast majority of Americans are covered by their employer plans.

"We have to remember that we are in the white heat of this controversy now," said Mellman. "The temperature will be a lot lower a year from now."

Maybe -- depending on how many people lose coverage, how many sign up for new policies and what the prices are as Election Day nears.

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