Health Insurance

Jonathan Gruber is very, very sorry about Obamacare 'gaffes'


Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber didn't need congressmen to blast him Tuesday for his foot-in-mouth comments on the health-care reform law.

He did that all by himself.

Gruber, the MIT economist who helped create Obamacare, apologized repeatedly for a series of revealing, "mean," "offending," "uninformed," "glib" and ill-considered comments he made on the law—including one referring to the "stupidity of the American public."

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner (L) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics professor Jonathan Gruber are sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing about the Affordable Care Act in the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
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But Gruber, whose comments gave Republican opponents of the law fresh ammunition, also told a congressional committee that while "I behaved badly and will have to live with that ... my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act."

"I am embarrassed, and I am sorry," Gruber told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing on his remarks and a nearly 400,000-person erroneous overstatement about ACA health insurance enrollment numbers by the Obama administration.

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"In some cases I made uninformed and glib comments about the political process behind health-care reform," he said. "It is never appropriate to try to make oneself seem more important or smart."

'My misguided comments'

But Gruber called the ACA "a milestone accomplishment for our nation that has already provided millions of Americans with health insurance."

"I hope that our country can move past the distraction of my misguided comments and focus on the enormous opportunities this law provides," he said.

Gruber also sought to downplay his role in crafting the ACA, saying "I was not the 'architect' of President Obama's health-care reform plan, but instead someone who "ran microsimulation models to help those in the state and federal and legislative branches better assess the likely outcomes of various public policy choices."

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But Gruber also acknowledged repeatedly visiting the White House during the time the law was being drafted and debated, and to receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal consulting fees in the process.

Gruber's craven mea culpa came weeks after the disclosure of a set of different videos showing him making blunt remarks about the ACA at various speaking events.

At one of those events, Gruber told his audience that the ACA "was written in a tortured way to make sure" the Congressional Budget Office "did not score the mandate as taxes."

"If [the Congressional Budget Office] scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies," Gruber said at the time. "If you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in—you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money—it would not have passed ... lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass."

At another event, Gruber said the ACA's "Cadlliac tax," which imposes a levy on high-priced employer-based insurance plans, passed because people were "too stupid to understand it."

Crippling comment?

Gruber at another event talked about how the ACA offered enrollees below certain income limits subsidies to help them buy insurance on what would be new government-run marketplaces, or exchanges.

"In the law, it says if the states don't provide them, the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting out its backstop, I think partly because they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it. I think what's important to remember politically about this is if you're a state and you don't set up an exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits," Gruber said.

While that line got essentially no notice at the time, it has gotten a tremendous amount of attention recently as Obamacare opponents pushed a series of court cases challenging the legality of subsidies given enrollees on the federal exchange, which serves two-thirds of the country. The challenges are based on language in the ACA that only explicitly discusses subsidies being issued through state-run exchanges, not a federal exchange.

The Supreme Court recently said it would consider that challenge, which if successful could cripple sales of Obamacare plans in the affected states and wreak other damage to the law there.

Gruber said Tuesday that at the time he made the comment he was talking about the possibility that the federal government would not set up, which would mean that a state would have to set up its own exchange to ensure people could get subsidies for their premiums.

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"I have a long-standing and well-documented belief that health-care reform legislation, in general, and the ACA, in particular, must include mechanisms for residents in all states to obtain tax credits," which are also known as subsidies, he said. "My microsimulation model for the ACA expressly modeled for the citizens of all states to be eligible for tax credits, whether served directly by a state exchange or by a federal exchange," Gruber said.

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Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the Republican congressman who chairs the committee conducting the hearing, tried to get Gruber to say his comments inadvertently revealed aspects of the law that the Obama administration preferred to go unsaid.

"Are you stupid?" Issa asked Gruber.

"I don' think so," Gruber said.

"Does MIT employ stupid people?" Issa continued.

Gruber said, "Not to my knowledge, no."

Issa then pressed home his point: "You did say that, in fact, if people knew the whole truth, they wouldn't have voted for it?"

"I made a critical mistake," Gruber said.

Gruber got some help from Democratic committee members, who talked about the millions of people who had obtained health insurance coverage due to Obamacare.

But the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ripped Gruber for the "stupid, I mean absolutely stupid comments he made over the past few years."

"I'm extremely frustrated with Dr. Gruber's statements that were irresponsible, incredibly disrespectful and did not reflect reality, and were incredibly insulting," Cummings said.

He said Gruber's comments "gave Republicans a public relations gift in their relentless campaign to tear down the Affordable Care Act."

Also Tuesday, Issa tore into Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner for having incorrectly told Congress in September that total Obamacare enrollment at that time was about 7.3 million people. Tavenner has since admitted that number was an overstatement because federal officials incorrectly double-counted nearly 400,000 individual insurance plan enrollees who also had separate dental plans in that tally.

"You gave what would be considered by anyone false and misleading testimony," Issa told Tavenner.

"Simply put, this was a mistake," Tavenner said. She said, the inclusion of people with dental plans was inadvertent and not intentional.

"While this mistake was regrettable, it should not obscure the fact that the ACA is working," she said.