White House in crisis mode on health care

Michael D. Shear / New York Times News Service /

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was seething. Two weeks after the disastrous launch of Health Care.gov, Obama gathered his senior staff members in the Oval Office for what one aide recalled as an “unsparing” dressing-down.

The public accepts that technology sometimes fails, the president said, but he had personally trumpeted that Health Care.gov would be ready on Oct. 1, and it wasn’t.

“If I had known,” Obama said, according to the aide, “we could have delayed the website.”

Obama’s anger, described by a White House that has repeatedly sought to show that the president was unaware of the extent of the website’s problems, has lit a fire under the West Wing staff. There is anxiety inside the White House that if the health care problems are not righted, they could imperil the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Obama sought to tamp down that criticism that he misled consumers by apologizing in an interview with NBC News on Thursday. “I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me,” the president said.

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, is in charge of damage control, but he has also insisted that other work continues as the White House struggles to find a balance between operating in perpetual crisis mode and moving on with the rest of Obama’s agenda.

“People expect us to fix the damn website,” a senior White House adviser said. “But they want us to move on, and stay focused on improving the economy.”

Some Democrats close to the White House, however, think the administration is not sufficiently panicked by the health care problems. They worry that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, is not equipped to pull the administration out of the morass.

“They are going to have to start thinking about some options,” said one Obama ally familiar with internal operations at the White House. “They need to get ahead of it somehow.”

Other allies of the president are urging the White House not to let Obama get swallowed up by the health care issue the way that the BP oil spill crisis in summer 2010 pushed aside virtually everything else.

“They have made a strategic decision that they can’t let this become like BP — the only story out there forever,” said one Democratic ally who has talked with senior White House staff members in recent days. “There are other things that they are going to push forward.”

Mental health parity — It’s final: Health insurance companies must cover mental illness and substance abuse just as they cover physical diseases. The Obama administration issued new regulations Friday that spell out how a 5-year-old mental health parity law will be administered. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the rule should put an end to discrimination faced by some mental health patients through higher out-of-pocket costs or stricter limits on hospital stays or visits to the doctor. Health insurers said the final rule doesn’t really change the landscape they’ve been operating in since interim rules were released in 2010.

— The Associated Press