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President Obama yields some ground on Affordable Care Act (Trib Total Media)

By Alex Nixon 

President Obama ran into fresh criticism on Thursday as he bowed to pressure and attempted to throw a lifeline to consumers whose insurance policies are being canceled because they don't provide the robust coverage that the health care law requires.

The president, who has resisted calls to delay or tweak the law, made an administrative change that allows individuals to keep substandard plans through 2014. But the option is up to the insurance companies, and it isn't clear whether they would go along.

The president's plan is aimed at quelling mounting criticism over the cancellation of policies despite his pledges that individuals could keep existing coverage if they like it. More than 250,000 Pennsylvanians' policies could be canceled.

At least 4 million Americans in 30 states have gotten cancellation letters because their policies do not meet the higher benefits levels required under Obamacare.

“We're going to solve the problems that are there. We're going to get it right so that the Affordable Care Act works for all Americans,” Obama said during a White House news conference.

The change to the law known as Obamacare would allow insurance companies to reinstate individual policies that have been canceled and extend others that don't comply for another year as long as insurance commissioners in each state approve.

Despite the concession from Obama, critics of the law called for bigger changes, such as permanently allowing individuals to keep their plans; delaying for one year the mandate that virtually all Americans have coverage starting next year; and extending the open-enrollment period to buy a health plan through the online insurance marketplace set up under the law.

“It's not enough,” said Christine Cronkright, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett, who sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday stating that “250,000 Pennsylvanians are losing their coverage due to the ACA.”

“We're looking for legislation that would allow people to keep their policies permanently,” Cronkright said.

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine was reviewing Obama's proposal and had not decided whether he would support the change, Cronkright said.

The National Association for the Self-Employed said Obama should go further by implementing a one-year delay in tax penalties for people who don't buy insurance and extending open enrollment through the end of 2014. Open enrollment is scheduled to end March 31.

“The White House proposal is short-sighted and presents further challenges for everyday Americans to comply with the individual mandate requirements,” said Katie Vlietstra, the association's director of government affairs.

Insurance industry officials expressed concern that allowing people to keep their current policies could destabilize the economics of the law. The industry needs younger people who are healthy and are typically the ones who have purchased individual insurance, to buy plans offered on the government's website, or exchange, to offset the cost of insuring older people with chronic illnesses.

“All of the underwriting and pricing of the exchange plans depended on, ‘You're going to get a lot of young, healthy people,' ” said Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, a statewide industry group.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners warned that the president's decision could undermine the marketplaces run by the federal government in Pennsylvania and 35 other states, as well as state-run marketplaces in the remaining 14 states.

Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, president of the group, said Obama's proposal could lead to higher premiums and market disruptions next year and beyond. And, he said, it may be unworkable as a practical matter.

Responses from health insurers selling plans in Western Pennsylvania were mixed.

UPMC Health Plan spokesman Bill Modoono said the company was evaluating the proposal and declined to comment.

Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said, “It is unclear how these proposed changes can be put into effect.”

Aetna Inc. spokesman Walt Cherniak said, “We support efforts to allow people to keep what they have,” but it would need help from state regulators to quickly renew policies it had discontinued.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County said Obama's move was politically motivated — a concession to congressional Democrats who are worried that voter backlash could hurt midterm re-election campaigns next year.

“The president's announcement is, at best, a temporary fix to postpone this disaster until after the next election,” Toomey said.

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