Jonathan Gruber, one of the nation's leading health care economists, spent four hours on Capitol Hill Tuesday beating up on himself and playing down his expertise in an effort to defend himself—and protect the future of Obamacare.
The MIT professor apologized to lawmakers for making “glib, thoughtless and sometimes downright insulting comments” regarding the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Recordings have emerged in recent months showing Gruber, who was a paid consultant helping to draft Obamacare, making a series of comments that cited the “stupidity of the American voter” as a reason the law was passed.
“In some cases I made uninformed and glib comments about the political process behind health care reform,” Gruber said in his testimony before the House Oversight Committee. "I am embarrassed, and I am sorry...I behaved badly, and I will have to live with that, but my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act."
There's a reason he hopes that we'll agree: His comments have not only given Republicans new political ammunition against the landmark health care law, but also could help an upcoming Supreme Court challenge to it if his most damning remarks are taken seriously.
Republicans insisted that Gruber knew exactly what he was talking about when he made his inopportune remarks—and is simply playing dumb now to cover it up. "Are you stupid?" asked Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee. "I don’t think so, no," Gruber replied. "Does MIT employ stupid people?" Issa continued. "Not to my knowledge," he responded.
Gruber repeatedly tried to downplay his own expertise in broader questions surrounding the health care law. "I conjectured with a tone of expertise to try to make myself seem smarter," he said, denying that he was the "architect" of Obamacare—and saying he overstated his role in writing the law. "If I said that, that was once again an effort to see more important than I was," he added.
Republicans said they weren't buying it, suggesting that he was working in cahoots with Democrats to pass a law that misled the American public. "How did the administration use your information to write the ACA in a tortured way, so that CBO would not score it as a tax?" asked Rep. Cynthia Lummis. "How did you do it?"
Adding to the GOP's case was the recent revelation that the Obama administration had reported inflated enrollment numbers for Obamacare in 2014—a genuine error that has fueled further skepticism and suspicion about the law.
Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, apologized at the hearing for the administration's earlier reports that 7.3 million were enrolled in Obamacare, which erroneously included 400,000 who only enrolled in dental plans. "Simply put, this was a mistake," she said, denying that the administration intentionally meant to deceive the public.
But Tuesday's hearing was more than just an exercise in self-flagellation. Hours into the event, Gruber was repeatedly forced to account for his most damaging comments about Obamacare—remarks that could have real consequences for the future of the law.
On two separate occasions in 2012, Gruber said that states who didn’t set up their own exchanges would not receive tax credits to subsidize health care, which supports the latest Supreme Court challenge to the law. That’s the question that’s at the crux of the King vs. Burwell challenge to Obamacare, which seizes on language in the law suggesting that tax credits would not be offered to those consumers.
At the hearing, Gruber said his comments about the tax credits had been taken out of context, explaining that he was speculating about a scenario that did not come to pass.
“The point I believe I was making was about the possibility that the federal government, for whatever reason, might not create a federal exchange,” he said. “If that were to occur, and only in that context, then the only way that states could guarantee that their citizens would receive tax credits would be to set up their own exchanges."
But Gruber's explanation for his remarks raised further questions, as Republicans pointed out during the hearing. The law as passed required that Washington to set up a federal exchange in states that chose not to set up their own exchanges. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan asked Gruber whether he was aware that requirement was in the law.
"I don't recall," Gruber said.
"You ran the economic model on Obamacare, and you don't know what the law says?" Amash retorted. Gruber later explained that, at the time, he believed the fate of the federal exchange was up in the air because of the upcoming 2012 presidential election and the complexity of implementing it by 2014.
The question is not simply a political one: The ambiguity surrounding the federal exchanges may be fodder for the King vs. Burwell case that is the biggest threat to Obamacare. If the Supreme Court strikes down the tax credits for those in the federally-supported exchanges, it would dramatically raise premiums for millions of Americans and imperil the entire future of the law.
"Gruber’s attempt to explain away his comments that tax credits are not available in federal Exchanges is just not believable. It is not consistent with what he said repeatedly in 2012," said Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, whose writings on the provision are at the heart of the King vs. Burwell challenge.
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan criticized Tavenner for failing to inform those enrolled in Obamacare that their subsidies could be at risk. “Do you think it’s responsible to not tell the millions of enrollees…that things may change dramatically, and they have a tax liability and their premiums may increase as much as four-fold?” Jordan said.
"Nothing has changed for consumers," Tavenner said. "The law is pretty clear." Open enrollment for 2015 coverage began on November 15, but the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the federal exchange's subsidies in June, which could upend the Obamacare Marketplace.
Democrats piled on Gruber as well—but made sure to characterize his comments as "absolutely stupid" remarks that had no greater import, simply giving Republicans a "public relations gift" in their attack on Obamacare, in the words of ranking member Elijah Cummings.
Unlike Republicans—who tried to focus on the way that Obamacare was passed in the first place—Democrats mostly talked up Obamacare's present-day successes: New reports that the growth of health care costs has slowed, in part due to the law; the growing number of plans available on Obamacare's exchanges; and a relatively smooth start to the open enrollment period, in contrast to last year's debacle with the website. The single witness that Democrats called up was a local DC resident who's happy with his new coverage under Obamacare.
The Republican attacks on Gruber "may be good political theater, but it will not help a single american get health insurance," said Cummings. "It will not help a single person get well."