WASHINGTON — Four years ago, newly elected Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was assigned to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and quickly established himself as a vehement advocate for health care reform.
“Twenty years from now we’ll look back at this seminal opportunity and ask ourselves whether we rose to the challenge,” Merkley wrote in The Huffington Post in July 2009. “We’ll ask whether we stuck with the status quo: a health care system that drains wealth from our country and leaves millions of Americans behind. Or, did we answer the overwhelming call of the American people to reform our health care system by improving care, lowering costs and making health care work for all Americans?”
Four years later, Merkley is preparing to defend his Senate seat for the first time, while President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act looms as a potentially large campaign issue in the 2014 election.
As part of a new Democratic majority in 2009, Merkley helped pass the massive health care law, better known as Obamacare.
Despite Obama’s repeated assurances that if you like your health plan, you can keep it, millions of Americans, including 150,000 Oregonians, received cancellation notices from their insurance companies saying their current plans will no longer be available in 2014. Earlier this month, Merkley joined a group of Senate Democrats up for re-election next year in a White House meeting, where they voiced their frustrations with the botched rollout of healthcare.gov and fallout over the president’s broken promise.
“It was a significant failure to understand (by me) that the grandfathering had this flaw in it,” Merkley told The Oregonian, “and now that it’s recognized, we’ve got to fix it.”
Budget office prediction
For Merkley’s opponents, this lack of understanding of the effects of a bill he helped champion is an indication that he’s a partisan loyalist, more supportive of the president than of good policy.
“Legislators, elected officials, are only human,” said state Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who is running in May’s primary for the Republican nomination to challenge Merkley. “And it’s certainly possible to make mistakes. But in this case, there’s no credible claim that this was unknown.”
Conger pointed to a 2010 report by the Congressional Budget Office predicting that as many as 93 million Americans would be forced off their health plans by the health care law.
That same year, Conger noted, Merkley joined with 58 other Democrats to vote against a proposal by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., that would have set aside the administration’s approach to determining which coverage plans would be allowed.
“It’s not like this issue was genuinely below the radar or mysterious. There was ample notice that this was coming,” Conger said. “I suspect that the gamble was, on their part, that the exchanges would be up and running, and people would not object as loudly, of course, if they could hop on the exchange and purchase an alternative insurance plan at a subsidized price.”
Conger said Merkley and others should be held accountable for their willingness to go along with the Obama administration’s plan.
“That’s the way our political system is supposed to work,” he said. “In an ideal world, if a politician says something that isn’t true, in the way that Sen. Merkley and some others did in this case, the voters get the opportunity to show their displeasure in the next election.”
Monica Wehby, a Portland neurosurgeon who is also running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, said the Affordable Care Act suffered from having input from only one party, having been passed along strict party lines without any GOP support.
“There’s a reason there’s a two-party system. People look at different sides of an issue, and if you totally disregard the concerns of the other side, then you’re bound to get blindsided with problems in the future,” she said.
Merkley has been rated by the National Journal as the Senate’s most liberal member, which puts him out of step with many Oregonians, she said. Oregon is not as solidly blue, or Democratic, as it appears, she said. The large number of Oregon Republicans, voters labeled as red, suggest Oregon is actually purple.
“When you get to where you’re voting left of (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nev.), you’re not truly representing our state,” she said. “If you’re always in lockstep with a particular side, it’s worrisome that you’re not really evaluating each issue based on our state and what people in Oregon are concerned about.”
Conger contrasted Merkley’s support for the law with that of Democrat Ron Wyden, Oregon’s senior senator. Wyden offered his own alternative to the administration’s plan, with some Republican support, he said.
“At least Sen. Wyden was actively trying to do something with health care reform, and not just blindly following the administration’s lead,” Conger said. “It does appear that that may have happened in the case of Sen. Merkley. Rather than trying to have some input or add some value in the health care reform debate, he may have gone just kind of blindly following along.”
These days, Merkley remains a supporter of the law, but his backing is tempered with criticisms of its implementation.
Merkley is not disillusioned with the law itself, “but I am very frustrated with the problems that developed in the website,” he said. “It should never have been in this situation.”
The problems with Cover Oregon.com, the online exchange Oregon developed independently of healthcare.gov, are also “deeply frustrating,” he said.
“There was plenty of time to get ready to have this fully operational,” he said.
The exchanges are an essential part of a key provision of the law that allows individuals to find cheaper coverage by pooling their buying power, he said.
“There is no question with Cover Oregon having to resort to paper applications, the process of signing up has been slowed way down,” he said, conceding that some frustrated shoppers will give up before the system is fully functional. “But folks who fundamentally are searching for insurance who don’t have it currently, they are going to keep searching. The expectation we have is that they are still going to make their way to the insurance marketplace, by and large.”
Earlier this month, Merkley signed on as a co-sponsor to legislation introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., that would require insurance companies to continue to offer plans currently available, thereby giving consumers the option of keeping their coverage if they prefer.
Merkley said he would be happy to work with colleagues across the aisle to find ways to improve the law, but many Republicans, such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, just want to scrap it altogether.
“We keep seeking partners across the aisle,” he said.
Fix exchanges first
But first, he said, the online exchanges have to be fixed, because they are a central piece of the puzzle.
Merkley has also endorsed a proposal by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.D., that would extend the enrollment period to compensate for the time lost while the website was not fully functional.
“I called for us to have a window that gives people a full opportunity to apply, so that for every day that the website remains dysfunctional, a day is added on the back end of this window,” he said. “If we keep the vision of the six-month window that we originally had, so that delays on the front end are added on the back end, I think that will help a lot in terms of people being able to get through the process and sign up.”
There are other important provisions of the act that make Merkley resistant to starting again from scratch. Under the law, insurance companies can’t deny individuals coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and insurance companies can’t drop coverage for people who get sick.
“Under the healthcare system that we had, if you had a pre-existing condition, you were out of luck,” he said.
In response to some of the criticism leveled at the senator over the rollout and subsequent policy cancellations, Merkley spokesman Matt McNally accused Republicans of wanting to undercut the law.
“Instead of making fixes to the law, Republicans want to repeal the entire thing and go back to the old way of doing things, (with) people being kicked off their insurance when they got sick, caps on people’s coverage, and no coverage for those with pre-existing conditions,” McNally said. Repealing health reform would also roll back prescription drug and preventive health coverage, he said.
“Sen. Merkley knows that we can’t go back to the old way of doing things on health care, and that is why he will continue to work to keep what works in the law and fix what doesn’t.”
With the election almost a year away, it is too soon to say what role the health care law will play in the 2014 election cycle, said Jim Moore, an assistant professor of politics and government and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
People generally decide to challenge an incumbent for partisan reasons — they want to oust a politician from an opposing party — or because they feel strongly about a single issue, he said. At this point, the candidates vying for the Republican nomination to run against Merkley have not made the health care law the centerpiece of their campaigns, he said.
With the state’s history of health care reform, added Moore, Oregon voters tend to side with candidates who are pro-reform over those who promote the status quo.
“Health care reform here has a fairly positive connotation,” he said. “In Oregon, the argument that health care reform is too expensive is always countered with: ‘We gotta do something.’”
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Oregon by a margin of 846,893 to 665,380, with another 598,201 registered as Independents or to another party, according to the Oregon secretary of state. Under its current 2014 predictions, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics lists Oregon as “likely Democrat.”
There are indications, however, that the troubled health care law rollout is hurting Democrats’ standing with voters. For example, a poll by Quinnipiac University found that the percentage of Coloradans who disapprove of the job performance of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has climbed to 44 percent in November, from 34 percent in August and 31 percent in June. Udall’s approval rating has hovered around 44 percent over the same period. He is a freshman Democrat from Colorado first elected alongside Merkley in 2008.
There was no corresponding poll in Oregon of Merkley’s numbers.
— Reporter: 202-662-7456, firstname.lastname@example.org