First Thoughts: Another 11th-hour health-care change

Another health-care delay… Listing all the delays… Obama heads to Hawaii, but don’t be surprised if we hear from him first … Republicans again dealing with immigration and gay rights … A busy next two months … And the top 10 races of 2014 to watch.

*** Another 11th-hour health-care change: Fearing that the number of people who lose coverage could match the number who sign up for insurance this year, the administration announced a new grandfather clause Thursday night: People who received cancellation notices for their policy but are not eligible for subsidies can use the law’s “hardship exemption” to buy a bare-bones plan. Also, the administration announced these folks will NOT get hit with a tax penalty this year if they do not have insurance by Jan. 1, NBC’s Maggie Fox reports. This is just the latest of several delays and extensions offered by the administration (some items listed below). The insurance industry behind the scenes is panicking over this, thinking it will affect their cost estimates, warning that it could increase costs and could mean higher prices eventually. This is just the latest in a series of rules changes the administration has put into place as criticism of the implementation has heated up. Here’s a quick list of just some of the delays put in place this year:

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as "Obamacare", outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
  • One-year mandate delay for those who are losing insurance who previously had it (today).
  • Insurers allowed to continue to sell below-par policies for another year (“fix” for those who had policies they liked but lost them). (November)
  • The small-business exchange site delayed a year, meaning small businesses won’t have to purchase insurance for employees until Nov. 2014.
  • Large-employer mandate was delayed until 2015
  • Limit on out-of-pocket expenses delayed until 2015

And that’s in addition to the delayed sign up deadline that slid eight days (Dec. 15-23), the extended sign ups until March 31, 2014, open enrollment being pushed back into November, as well as the web site’s back-end delays, the Spanish-language site delay, and the essentially two-month delayed functional launch of Serious question: will there be a single uninsured American in 2014 who will end up paying the mandate penalty?

*** Wanna get away? All that could make the person in charge of this law and whose legacy rests on its implementation want to book a flight and get out of town for the holidays. President Obama is doing just that tonight when he leaves for Hawaii at 6:45 pm ET. He does not return to Washington until Jan. 5th. It would be surprising if we didn’t hear from him one more time before he leaves. There is no doubt the president can’t wait for 2013 to be in the books, easily his most troubled year politically. And now most of his vacation, if he’s focused on work, it’ll be health care, so admin officials told reporters yesterday. There will be regularly updates provided to the president regarding signups. Ironically, while the president has had a terrible year politically, the economy continues to slowly and steadily improve. The economy grew at a 4.1% annual rate, according to GDP numbers out this morning, up from the 3.6% reported earlier this month. That’s the fastest pace in nearly two years. By the way, Steve Harvey’s interview with President Obama airs at 3 pm ET today.

*** What do Republican presidential hopefuls do about immigration? Gov. Chris Christie (R) struck a deal with the state legislature yesterday on a bill that allows in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. He promised to do this during his campaign. It wasn’t clear that he would go through with it, but he did. In-state tuition was an issue in 2012 for Rick Perry, and nearly sunk John McCain’s presidential aspirations in 2008. By the way, this could be a dividing line issue for Christie with another governor, who wants to make the case that he can appeal to moderates – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In 2011, Walker stripped out in-state tuition rates for children of undocumented immigrants, something that had been put in there in 2009 by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard. Of course, the wild card here is what do presidentials do if the GOP-controlled House tackles some similar immigration measures next year? Secretly, every GOPer running in 2016 would love nothing more than for the House Republicans to simply get this issue out of the way for them.

*** Conservatives don’t “Duck” this fight: From one thorny GOP issue to another… To us, that Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” saying something controversial/offensive isn’t political news, or that it’s political news he got suspended from A&E for saying it. After all, plenty of celebrities -- conservative or liberal -- say controversial/offensive things all the time and they usually get some slap on the wrist. But what IS political news is when prominent politicians swoop in to defend the controversial/offensive comments. Here was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R): “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don't agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views.” (Of course, companies are also entitled to fire/suspend their employees, too.) And here was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Twitter: “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over treatment of Phil Robertson.” But the real reason why this is a story is that the Jindal-Cruz comments go precisely against the RNC’s autopsy recommendations. “On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters,” the RNC report said. These comments may feel good in the moment and appeal to the base (something certainly Jindal needs to do with sagging poll numbers). But that’s all this is talking to. And it reinforces the problems Republicans have with swing voters when it comes to these issues. That’s the danger here. Republicans have three choices on things like this – denounce, support, or say nothing. The safest thing for most of them is to say nothing.

*** Look at the busy couple of months ahead -- Some upcoming political dates to circle on your calendars:

Dec. 23: Deadline to apply for a health-care plan that will take effect starting on Jan. 1

Jan. 14: Primaries in the FL-13 special congressional election

Jan. 15: Continuing resolution funding the government expires

Jan. 28: State of the Union

Feb. 7: Date when debt ceiling must be raised

*** On “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory interviews IMF head Christine Lagarde, as well as Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK)

*** Happy Holidays, Happy New Year! Lastly, this is our final First Thoughts/morning note of the year, but we’ll be back on Monday, Jan. 6. During that stretch, of course, we’ll update the site when news warrants. Happy Holidays, and have a great New Year!

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