Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 7, 2013 – 1:06 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. I have no announcements to make at the top of this briefing, so we can get right to your questions.
Q Great. Thanks, Jay. What can you tell us about reports out of Geneva that the U.S. is prepared to offer some relief from sanctions if Iran takes steps to limit its building to make a nuclear weapon?
MR. CARNEY: Thank you for that. And bear with me, because I have a fairly lengthy comment to make in response.
The P5-plus-1 is engaged in serious and substantive negotiations with Iran that offer the possibility of a verifiable diplomatic agreement that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Those talks are continuing today in Geneva, where the United States is represented by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
We are not going to comment on the specifics of our negotiating positions. In general, the P5-plus-1 is focused on developing a phased approach that in the first step halts Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward, and potentially rolls back parts of it. The first step would address Iran’s most advanced nuclear activities; increase transparencies so Iran will not be able to use the cover of talks to advance its program; and create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement. This would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing for the first time in a decade.
In exchange for concrete, verifiable measures to address the P5-plus-1’s concerns during the first step, the P5-plus-1 would consider limited, targeted, and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions architecture. That core sanctions architecture would be maintained until there is a final comprehensive, verifiable agreement that resolved the international community’s concerns.
If Iran does not live up to its commitments, the temporary modest relief would be terminated, and we would be in a position to ratchet up the pressure even further by adding new sanctions.
And finally, any agreement between the international community and Iran will have to prove to the international community that Iran’s program will be used for exclusively peaceful purposes in a meaningful and verifiable way. Iran must also meet its international obligations and fulfill its responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its responsibilities to the IAEA, and its responsibilities to staying in compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. The P5-plus-1 remains united in this approach.
Q How close are you to a deal? There are some reports from the Iranians that it could happen today.
MR. CARNEY: I have no updates on the negotiations. They’re serious and substantive, and they are ongoing. But again, what is being discussed is a phased approach that would have a first step, but I have no announcements to make about the details of those negotiations or where they are in the progress they’re making.
Q Would you describe this as progress, Jay, when the Iranians are saying it so?
MR. CARNEY: There’s no question, Steve, that over the course of the last weeks and days there has been progress. You saw that in the aftermath of the elections in Iran, and we’ve seen it in a new openness from Iranian leaders to the demands of the international community, that they meet their responsibilities when it comes to their nuclear weapons program.
The approach the United States has taken with our allies has brought us to this point. There is no question that the very extensive sanctions regime that has been put in place, the sanctions architecture that has been put in place, led by the United States, has had a dramatic impact on the Iranian economy. And the Iranian leadership is very interested in getting out from under those sanctions and trying to reverse some of the negative consequences to their economy.
We have always said that we’re interested in making sure Iran does not and cannot acquire a nuclear weapon through diplomatic means, one, because a diplomatic resolution to this challenge is obviously preferable, and it’s preferable in part because it would be the most certain and verifiable way to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. But there is a limited window of opportunity here.
So we’re taking advantage of a new level of seriousness that we’ve seen to engage in negotiations, but we are doing it in a way that makes clear that actions are what matter here; that steps that the P5-plus-1 would insist upon in return for the moderate relief that I described would have to be verifiable, and it would be reversible. And if a comprehensive agreement were not reached, that relief would be terminated, and there would be the opportunity to ratchet up sanctions further.
Q Some members of the Senate have been wanting to add sanctions. Have you briefed them on this proposal? Have you persuaded them to hold off on what they’ve been wanting to do?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we have worked very closely with Congress, and Congress has been an excellent partner in general, in the approach that the administration has taken towards this challenge. And the sanctions architecture that’s in place is multilateral but it’s also unilateral, and Congress has been an effective partner in helping put that architecture in place.
Our view has been that we need to allow for a pause here so that we can explore the potential represented by these serious and substantive negotiations. And as I said earlier, if we were not able to reach — if the P5-plus-1 were not able to reach a final agreement, a comprehensive agreement, then there would be the potential not only to terminate the relief that we’d put in place, but to ratchet up sanctions further.
And none of the relief that we’re talking about here as part of a first step in this phased approach, phased-in approach, would be irreversible. It would all be reversible so that we could, if necessary, terminate that relief and then potentially ratchet up sanctions further. Obviously, we continue to consult with Congress in that effort, as we have throughout.
Q Jay, I wanted to ask you about the President’s comments last night in Dallas. He said, we anticipate — he used the word “anticipate” — that by November 30th, that the website will be able to work as it was supposed to. It just sounds like there’s a little bit of wiggle room there in using the word “anticipate.” Can you say what the consequences would be for CMS, HHS, people inside this White House, if that website is not working the way it’s supposed to by November 30th?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can tell you that the objective here has not changed. Our position has not changed. It is still that the website and its problems are being addressed by a team of experts, and that that work is continuing around the clock every day, and that by the end of the month we expect the site to be functioning at the standards necessary for the vast majority of the American people. And that’s what we’ve said from the beginning.
So I wouldn’t read anything into that, except to say that this is obviously challenging work, because the problems are many, and we’ve acknowledged that. And the President has made clear that that circumstance is unacceptable to him, which is why he has demanded that all the action be taken that’s being taken. So the work continues. And again, we expect the website to be functioning effectively for the vast majority of users by the end of the month.
Q And what is the plan B if that doesn’t happen, if the website is not working? Are there deliberations underway right now inside the administration to perhaps extend the enrollment deadlines to all of the various things that you’ve been asked about at these briefings? Is there a plan B?
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I would say that right now the tech experts who can answer this question better than anyone else, in terms of what fixes need to be made and on what schedule they can be made, believe that this can be done by the end of the month so that the website is functioning effectively for the vast majority of users. That has never meant that there wouldn’t be zero problems with the site, as is the case with almost any complicated and complex site, both private and public that exists. But it has to be functioning effectively for the vast majority of users.
It’s an important portal through which the American people who are interested in applying for coverage or at least finding out their options, that it’s an important portal for them to use. Now, there are, as we know and we’ve discussed, other ways for them to get the information. And they can window shop already on the website, but we’re trying to make it better every day, and it is getting better every day. But we’re not there yet. I think Secretary Sebelius made clear yesterday that we’re not there yet, and I know anecdotally you see proof of that, that the site is not firing effectively on all pistons, if you will, yet. But it needs to be, and that’s why that work is so important.
And when it comes to the question of extending — as I pointed out yesterday and I think Secretary Sebelius did too — we are still fairly early in a six-month, open enrollment period. And it is our belief that if the site is working effectively as expected that there is time to make sure that the people who are interested in enrolling in these options for coverage through the marketplaces will be able to do so in time to get insurance on January 1st. And obviously the enrollment period itself lasts through the end of March.
Q Because if you don’t get it done by November 30th, obviously there becomes a very short window of opportunity for people to sign up for insurance so they have coverage starting January 1st. So, I mean, that —
MR. CARNEY: Your understanding of the calendar is mine as well, but I’m saying that it is our position that the work is being done, and that it will —
Q Nobody is missing —
MR. CARNEY: No, but that it will be completed, which is not to take away from the challenges that it represents. But we believe we have the teams in place necessary to do the work and that that work will continue to progress and make improvements to the site. And I think anybody who monitors this closely can say that the improvements that have been achieved are noticeable, but we’re not there yet.
Q And just very quickly, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee over in the House, Dave Camp, has issued a subpoena for enrollment numbers by close of business tomorrow. Is the President, or is this White House instructing CMS, HHS to deliver those numbers?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have anything on the subpoena. I would tell you that we’re cooperating with Oversight. We’ve addressed the issue of enrollment numbers. If the purpose is to point out, which I’m sure it is, that enrollment numbers will be low for October, take it from me, they’ll be low in October. We’ve acknowledged that they were always going to be low, and that was even when we did not expect the problems with the website that occurred.
So what is our responsibility is to make sure that the data is assessed and made accurate before it’s released publicly, because there are so many inputs here when it comes to the collection of data. So that process will take place. I believe Marilyn Tavenner remarked in a hearing earlier this week that, as we’ve said before, that that data will be available in the middle of November, which is consistent with the way this kinds of data is released for other programs. So that remains our plan.
Q Because she says by mid-November, you’re saying by mid-November. That potentially could mean that you may not comply with the subpoena and —
MR. CARNEY: I’m not the counsel, so I don’t have a response to the subpoena. I can tell you that — or to the reports of the subpoena. I haven’t seen it myself. But we’re working on a schedule. I mean, let’s just focus again on the purpose of an exercise like that, which is clearly to make political hay out of what we’ve already acknowledged. The website is not working well, hasn’t been working well for the first month of the rollout. It’s improving daily, but it is not where it needs to be. In large measure because of the problems with the website, the enrollment figures will be even lower than the low numbers that were anticipated because of the nature of these kinds of programs and the way that people tend to enroll when you have a deadline six months later.
So we saw this in Massachusetts, as the President pointed out last week in Boston, that in the very similar Massachusetts program, in the first month of that enrollment period for that program, only 123 premium-paying customers enrolled. And of course that represented .3 percent of the number who eventually enrolled. So I think that’s the model to look at, and then add to that the fact that we’ve had the troubles we’ve had.
Q Jay, back on Iran. Senator Corker has put forth a measure that would bar the administration from using its power to waive some of the sanctions during this interim period that you spoke about unless Iran agrees to stop all enrichment activities and comply with all U.N. resolutions on this. Does the administration oppose such a measure?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a specific response to the legislation that you reference, but I would say that no one is suggesting an open-ended delay to sanctions — for new sanctions. And there may come a point where additional sanctions are necessary.
At the same time, it is important for Congress to reserve its ability to legislate for the moment when it’s most effective in order to give our current — to give the current P5-plus-1 negotiations the best chance to make real progress in achieving our shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
I would simply say that we are at this point in large part because of the approach that the administration has taken over the past five years in building an international consensus behind the premise that Iran has been the problem when it comes to Iran’s refusal to adhere to its international obligations. That consensus has allowed us to put in place the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, which has had significant impact on the Iranian economy. And that has come with a great deal of cooperation with Congress, and we fully expect to continue that consultation and cooperation with Congress.
Our view at this point is that these negotiations represent an opportunity to achieve the goal that we I think share with Congress and obviously with our allies and so many others in the international community, which is to ensure that Iran cannot obtain and will not obtain a nuclear weapon. We need to pursue that diplomatic opening because it exists, and we need to take the steps necessary to test the theory that the new Iranian leadership and the old Iranian leadership is actually interested in abiding by its international obligations and doing so in a way that is verifiable and meaningful and transparent.
If that does not come to pass, we will absolutely retain the right and believe it will be important to terminate any moderate sanctions relief that might take place, and to even ratchet up sanctions if necessary.
Q Let me ask you about Bob Menendez, of course the Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He says he doesn’t understand why, during this interim period for negotiations, Iran couldn’t be asked simply to suspend all enrichment activities — not roll it back, not limit the number of centrifuges, but simply suspend it. And what Menendez is saying is that’s what should happen before there should be any even limited rolling back. Does the White House disagree with Senator Menendez on this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that we’re not getting into specifics about the negotiations taking place in Geneva, as I noted at the top. I would say that the first step of this phased-in approach that we’re talking about here would have the effect of halting the Iranian nuclear weapons program — halting it, which means basically —
Q All enrichment? I mean, the weapons program they deny they even have, obviously. So would it halt all enrichment?
MR. CARNEY: It would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing for the first time in a decade.
Q From advancing. So it doesn’t mean it stops the program, does it?
MR. CARNEY: It stops it from advancing. So basically, when you talk about when we make —
Q Does that mean the centrifuges are still spinning, they’re still enriching?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the IAEA and others on the technical means by which the halt is achieved. But I would tell you that when our intelligence community and other intelligence communities make assessments about how long — where they are in their program and how long it would take for them to develop a nuclear weapon, and where they are in the process of enrichment, that all that progress would halt. And that essentially, by halting the clock and potentially rolling back where they are, puts time on the clock to allow for the pursuit of a more comprehensive agreement.
If that can’t be achieved, the moderate sanctions relief we’re talking about here would be reversible, and we would be in a situation where, acting with the international community, acting with Congress, we could reinstate all of the sanctions and consider ratcheting up sanctions to increase pressure. Because, again, it’s the approach that we’ve taken with regards to sanctions and the international consensus that we’ve built that has gotten us to this point already.
Q And can you remind me of what the end goal here is? Because it had long been to stop all enrichment. Is that still where we want to go?
MR. CARNEY: No, our stated policy has always been that we will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q What’s our policy on enrichment?
MR. CARNEY: The United States’ policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Our view is, as the President has said, with respect to the right of the Iranian people to access a nuclear program, that actually we respect that right — of a peaceful nuclear program. What the specific nature of that program would be is a matter for discussion and negotiation.
So we respect the right of Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program. Our policy objective, which we share with our allies and everyone involved, obviously in the P5-plus-1 and beyond, is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q And I’m sorry, just one quick — on health care, because I know you were asked about this, but I didn’t hear you get asked this specifically. On Monday, the President said that, “If you have had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we have said is that you could keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law has passed.” I’m wondering, can you give me a citation of when the President ever said such a thing?
MR. CARNEY: Sure, we went through this the other day. The President was referring to the law — and I can obviously point you to the law and people who covered the law, who wrote the law.
Q But he says, “what we have said.” I’m asking, when did he actually say that? I mean, we’ve heard him talk —
MR. CARNEY: I understand, Jon, and I answered this the other day.
Q I don’t think you gave a citation of when he said this, so I’m just —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I understand the point you’re trying to make, Jon, and what I said is that he was referring to the law and to the publishing of the rule which was covered, again, by news organizations, about the grandfathering clause where Kathleen Sebelius and others were quoted.
The fact of the matter is, as you know, the vast majority of the American people already receive health insurance coverage through their employer or through Medicare or Medicaid, or through the Veterans Administration. Fifteen percent of the country is uninsured, and because of the expansion of Medicaid or the marketplaces, have available to them quality, affordable health insurance for the first time. Five percent of the country gets its insurance on the individual market. The law is written so that those who had plans when the law was passed could have those plans grandfathered in.
And the point, obviously, which is — and I understand that there is a lot of discussion about this — but if you had that plan before the law was passed, it could be grandfathered in. What is absolutely the case is in the market itself, in that section of the insurance market, the individual insurance market, there is a tremendous amount of churn and always has been. People come in and out of that market. Their policies are routinely changed or adjusted, often downgraded. And in this case, if you had a plan that was downgraded, and therefore a plan that already did not meet ACA standards that might have been grandfathered in and was made even less compliant with minimum standards, then it would not be grandfathered in.
But our focus is on making sure that millions of Americans who have not had access to affordable, quality health insurance are able to get access to it. That’s the purpose of the Affordable Care Act.
And we’re going to continue to make sure that by making improvements to the website, by engaging in the kind of outreach the President engaged in yesterday, but so many others are engaged in to get to Americans across the country the information they need to find out what their options are, that we steadily implement the law here and make sure that the marketplaces are stood up so that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act are enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Q I’ll get back to Iran in a minute, but since you had such a lengthy statement about something recently published, I want to give you a chance on another foreign policy topic. There’s a report that the administration is in talks with the Yemeni government about a detention facility there that would house some of the detainees currently at Guantanamo, specifically those from Afghanistan and other countries. Can you say if these talks are in fact going on? And is this a potential partial resolution to the President’s long-sought goal of closing Guantanamo?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we continue to work on transfers, and it is and remains the President’s goal to close the Gitmo facility. That’s a goal shared by many, both Democrats and Republicans, including military leaders, because it’s in the interest of our national security in the United States.
I don’t have anything specific on conversations or negotiations with the Yemeni government. I think if you look back, there was a judgment made about transfers of Yemeni prisoners, or detainees rather, to which I’m sure this applies. But I don’t have a specific response to the —
Q It would certainly be more than transfers; it would be a facility. It would be a place —
MR. CARNEY: I just don’t have anything on that for you, Major.
Q Is it sounding correct to you?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll have to take the question.
Q Thank you very much. You can understand Jon’s question about enrichment and this standard of halting future progress, because the Israeli government is very concerned about where Iran is currently and that it may be within just a few technological steps of a nuclear weapon. So if you could provide any other clarity, Jay, about what the benefit of this halting standard is in comparison to where Iran is and where Israel feels it very quickly could be.
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear that the United States and Israel absolutely share the same goal, which is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we work very closely with the Israelis on this issue, and we share a lot of information about it.
It remains our assessment that Iran would need at least one year to acquire one nuclear weapon from the time that Iran decides to pursue one — so the breakout move that is often discussed. And we would be aware of that breakout move.
If there were an agreement to take this first step as part of a phased approach, the halting of progress on this program would mean that that year would — instead of being from this day forward, would be from the day forward that the agreement ended, if it were to end or not be fulfilled in the final agreement. In other words, we would be essentially buying time.
Q That would be one of the values of it.
MR. CARNEY: One of the values to allow for further negotiations to see if a comprehensive, verifiable, meaningful, transparent and enforceable agreement could be achieved, working with the P5-plus-1, through the P5-plus-1. And what we’re talking about here would be an agreement that would assure the international community that its concerns are being met, and that Iran’s obligations to the IAEA, to the United Nations Security Council and under the NPT are being met in a verifiable, enforceable way.
Q By definition, this first phase, should it be negotiated, the IAEA would be the organization that would provide that verification proof.
MR. CARNEY: They certainly have served that role in the past. In terms of the process by which a first step would be implemented, I would refer you to the P5-plus-1, but also to ask you to let’s wait and see if an agreement is reached, because we will have to — we’re still engaged in negotiations.
But I want to be clear that when we talk about the first step and the actions that the P5-plus-1 would take, in exchange for concrete, verifiable measures to address the P5-plus-1’s concerns, the P5-plus-1 would consider limited, targeted and reversible relief that doesn’t affect — and this goes to the question earlier — that does not affect our core sanctions architecture.
We helped build that architecture; we were in a way the lead architect, the United States. And we believe strongly that the approach we’ve taken that has led to the building of that architecture and the imposition of these very serious set of sanctions has served its goal well in forcing Iran to consider meeting its obligations under the international community because the cost of not doing so has been so high.
But as I’ve said in the past, we engage in these negotiations with our eyes wide open, and we are focused on actions and not words. And we would take that approach through to the end.
Q I know you don’t want to get into details — you certainly can’t — but one of the key points in a negotiation like this if you get beyond sort of atmospherics and get down to specific asks, meaning have we reached a stage in these talks where it’s not just general, but there are specific asks from the Iranians and specific asks from the P5-plus-1 on compliance, halting and sanctions relief — can you at least say anything about that?
MR. CARNEY: Whether we’re at the stage of —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can tell you broadly that serious and substantive negotiations contain within them discussions about what would be required to get to that first step. And I’ve laid out for you here what that would look like from our point of view if such a step were to be taken and agreed to, and also what it would not be when it comes to no agreement from the P5-plus-1 to compromise the sanctions architecture; that any step we would take in response to Iran’s commitment to, in a verifiable way, halt its nuclear program would be —
Q And can you define the core sanctions architecture, what the administration defines that —
MR. CARNEY: I think the kinds of actions — well, actually the kinds of actions that I’m speaking broadly, not specifically to what may be agreed to, but the kinds of actions that might be taken, the temporary, modest relief would be of the nature that would be easily reversible. So it might be more financial rather than technical. But the point being that the kinds of things that we would look at doing would be the kinds of things that we could turn on and off pretty quickly.
Q A couple of quick ones on health care. Recently, in the Federal Register, the Health and Human Services Department suggested that they may be giving an exemption to some unions, but also some businesses, in terms of some fees that they would have normally paid to help fund the health care law in 2015 and 2016 as I understand it. The question: Do you know anything about that? It’s been reported by Kaiser Health News and others that that’s the interpretation of what they put in the Federal Register. And is this a special treatment for unions who have supported the President? But, more broadly, how are you going to fund the law if you continue to issue exemptions for some people?
MR. CARNEY: Ed, I don’t have anything on that. I haven’t seen that article.
Q From this podium, a couple of times you have suggested that the reason why people are getting cancellation letters is because insurance companies are stripping away benefits from existing plans, you said, and that took away the grandfathering opportunity. We’ve talked to America’s Health Insurance Plans and they insist that the reason why people are really getting cancellation letters is that, number one, people are not in these plans for very long. As you know, they often are in these plans because they’re in between jobs, et cetera, and so they joined these plans after 2010, so that’s why they’re not grandfathered. And also, some of these folks have changed some of the plans. So who’s telling the truth?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think what you just said remains true as well, that some people who had plans were covered within the individual market prior to 2010, and those plans have been changed or downgraded — which, again, if you just take the Affordable Care Act out of it, is something that happened frequently within the insurance market, as I think many of us have even experienced over the years with changes to the plan, changes to benefits and coverage, changes to cost.
And in this case, if those plans were downgraded — so in other words, even if the plan, originally when the law passed, did not meet the minimum standards of coverage, it would have been grandfathered in. But if it were changed in a way that significantly reduced the benefits even below that, then obviously it would not be grandfathered in, it would not meet the minimum standards.
But as I was saying earlier, it is definitely the case that because this section, this 5 percent of the insurance market has traditionally been a place of a lot of churn, that there are people who have come into that market in the interim. And so it is the case that the grandfather clause did not apply to plans that did not yet exist or contracts that did not yet exist between individuals and insurance companies.
And look, I think it’s important here for me to say — the administration, the President, the Secretary, we’re concerned about these individuals and we want to make sure, first and foremost, that they’re getting all the information they need to know what options are available to them. I think we’ve seen a lot of evidence, and this is not about anybody purposefully withholding information, but just a lot of evidence that they don’t always know what the marketplaces offer them and whether or not they are eligible to receive subsidies. And it’s on us to make sure that these individuals in that market who are getting these notices find out about their options.
I think Consumer Reports reported earlier this week that, in many cases, individuals who are getting these notices are only being told that their current policy ends at the end of the year and being told that they have options from the insurer that they currently have, and they may not be fully informed about the fact that there are other options from other competitive insurance companies, or that they may qualify for subsidies.
And in some states — in fact, up to a million people, I believe, of this section of the population would be eligible for coverage under Medicaid because of the expanded Medicaid program that a number of states have taken up.
Q But so how do you react to The Washington Post this morning saying that you get three Pinocchios for suggesting this is the insurance industry to blame?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say a couple of things. One, I did not examine all of the math, but I’m not sure that everyone would agree with the math specifically. But you get no argument from us that there’s a lot of churn that preexists the ACA in this market. This section of the insurance market has always been the most volatile. It’s where people come in and out. It’s where people’s plans change and where they’re often purchasing insurance that is the least kind of comprehensive because they’re in small risk pools often, and not in — they don’t have the kind of purchasing power to drive down prices that people who participate in large insurance pools participate in. That’s the reason that we created the marketplaces to begin with — so that those with preexisting conditions, for example, were entered into a bigger pool which would help keep costs down for insurers and for the insured.
So I don’t take an issue with that. And there is no — we’re not blaming anyone solely for this phenomenon. What is the case is that some of these insurance plans that were out there, as we’ve seen in some of the reports, were pretty crummy. There’s the woman — as I cited earlier — the woman from Florida who got a fair amount of attention whose plan turned out not to cover hospitalization and others. It’s not uncommon in that market for insurance plans to be less than comprehensive, and to contain annual caps or lifetime caps, or carve-outs where coverage for specific conditions is not provided.
So there’s no question that, again, preexisting the Affordable Care Act, that that market was volatile, and that those individuals in it were the least able to — or were the most vulnerable to decisions by insurers to change their plans.
Q Right, but you said you — nobody is blaming anybody, but on November 5th you said, “Insurance companies that chose to strip away benefits from existing plans in the interim, that canceled existing plans in the interim, they took away that grandfathering opportunity, and that’s a reality.” It sounds like you’re blaming them.
MR. CARNEY: Well, for that — what I’m saying is that’s not everybody who’s gotten a cancellation notice, because as you note and others have noted, obviously some people have bought into the individual market in the interim between passage of the Affordable Care Act and the launch of the marketplaces. But there certainly is a universe of people who have had their plans changed or downgraded, and the fact is, a plan that doesn’t meet the standards that were introduced last year doesn’t get grandfathered in because it didn’t exist before 2010.
My point is simply that we — even though — and we make this point — this is a slice of a small percentage of the population, these are very important people in the health insurance universe. The marketplaces are designed in part to provide them security and certainty, the kind security and certainty that they haven’t necessarily had because of the nature of that market.
And we’re going to continue to work hard to make sure that everybody in that market, as well as in the broader universe of people who are looking at the options on the marketplaces, are getting all the information they need so that they know what their options are and they know if they’re eligible for tax credits, and they know whether or not, as more than half of them — as will be the case for more than half of them, they’re actually going to get better coverage for the same or lower cost.
Q Jay, Humana has come out and said that they have slashed the amount of enrollees that they’re expecting in half, from 500,000 to 250,000. Doesn’t that suggest or raise real concerns that you might not get the numbers that you need to get to make this policy —
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t seen that story. I don’t know what time period that is. The fact is, as we’ve said, enrollment for October will be lower than expected, probably significantly lower, because of the problems with the website. It stands to reason, and we acknowledge that. It is not an acceptable problem. It is one that we are working diligently to overcome. It is one that the President is not happy about. But it certainly makes it harder, and has made it harder through the first month anyway, for individuals who want to enroll online to enroll online. So what was already going to be a low figure will be lower.
Q But if you have at least one insurance company already coming forward and saying we’re slashing our expectations not just for this month, but in general, in half —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I haven’t seen that, so I don’t know the timeframe.
Q But why not consider extending the enrollment period by a little bit, just to give people a little bit more time, to give the law more time to get the required number of people to sign up, particularly those young people?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Kristen, what I would say is that we are still in the early part of a pretty significantly long open enrollment period — six months. We believe that the website will be functioning effectively for the vast majority of the American people by the end of this month. And if that’s the case, that there will be time for those who are enrolling in order to have insurance on January 1st to do so. And we are going to work all out to make that happen, both by making the improvements to the website, but also in the broader outreach and education campaign that we’re engaged in so that folks out there know what their options are, know what’s available to them and know by when they need to purchase insurance.
Q Let me ask you something that Senator Max Baucus asked Secretary Sebelius yesterday, which is why not just take the website down and put it back up on December 1st? Why not allow the tech experts to do their work and to take away what has become sort of a political football? I mean, obviously, as you know, Republicans continue to latch on to every glitch, and there seems to be more and more glitches. So why not take the website down?
MR. CARNEY: It was the judgment of the teams working on this that it could be fixed in this manner where there are regularly scheduled times when the site is worked on and improvements are made; and that during this period, while these improvements were being made, that the site — while not functioning to the standards we want it to function to — is still functioning in a way that allows for people to get information and people to register and ultimately enroll in an insurance plan.
Q But sometimes it’s not functioning, though, so that people can get even information, basic information, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I certainly don’t disagree with that. But I would say that if sometimes it isn’t, that means sometimes it is. And during those times individuals are able to get information and are able to sign up and to enroll, and that’s obviously the goal here.
Your question I think contains within it the suggestion that if the website were down completely for a period of time, Republicans would stop criticizing. And I probably — I think I doubt that.
Q Well, Jay, you were asked — and I’m not making that point — but more so that with each new glitch, it provides more fodder —
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s no question. And I think we have acknowledged forthrightly and directly that this is not functioning the way it should, and that’s unacceptable. And the President is the least happy about this among a lot of people who are unhappy about it. And that’s why we’re dedicating the resources and the brain power to the problem that we are.
And we are focused on, as I said the other day, on the end purpose here, the end goal, which is not can we win the day or the week in the back-and-forth over Obamacare, a back-and-forth that has been going on for four or five years now, but can we deliver on the promise of affordable, quality health insurance to every American.
And it’s not a happy situation when you have a website like this not functioning as effectively as it should, but it just means that we have to be focused on fixing those problems so that the benefits can be provided to the American people. We can’t take our eye off that ball.
Q When you were asked earlier this week when specifically the enrollment numbers would come out next week, you said you didn’t have that earlier this week. Do you know now, now that we’re ending this week?
MR. CARNEY: Mid-November is still my understanding. I don’t have a specific date.
Q Monday, Friday?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a specific date.
John, then Peter.
Q Two questions, Jay. First, you’ve said a couple of times that by the end of November you’re going to have the site functioning effectively for the vast majority of Americans. Vast majority is 70 percent, 99.9 percent?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to CMS and their regular briefings on the status of the progress being made and for that question.
The point being, I think as I said earlier, that we probably will never say that tomorrow there will be zero problems on a website like this. There aren’t zero problems on any website that I use, right — that any of us use. So what our point is, is that it functions effectively for the people who need to use it and are using it. The goal here is to meet those standards so that people can get the information they need, input the information they need to input, and enroll in a way that is satisfactory to them and allows them to enroll in these insurance markets — because again, as I was saying to Kristen, that’s the goal here.
And it’s not to get the perfect website. And it’s not to get — it’s not to win the political battle, because we are sort of back in that scrum that we’ve been in for so long here. And I know that we’re here because of the problems with the website that we’re responsible for, and we accept that. But we’re still there.
And in the end, this is still a discussion and a debate about is it the right thing to do to reform our health care system in a way that builds on the private insurance markets that we have, but can provide access to affordable, quality health insurance to millions of Americans who don’t have it. And the President’s belief, which has animated him since he ran for President, is that the answer to that question is, yes.
That’s what we debated when the law was being considered by Congress. That’s what we have debated ever since as Republicans have sought to repeal it. And I would just remind folks that, in the end, these discussions circle around the question of should we have reform or not — because the alternative is, again, coming from the critics, is to return to the world before the Affordable Care Act. And that world is not one that I think most Americans want to return to.
Q If I can move from the P5-plus-1 to the 2014 Ds-plus-1 yesterday, Michael Bennet from Colorado, the Ds-plus-1. (Laughter.) How big of a problem is it for the President in terms of the 2014 elections, in terms of trying to keep the Senate, if the Obamacare website isn’t up and running, if the law isn’t being implemented effectively?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think that the problem is in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a way that provides the benefits that it promises to millions of Americans. That’s the problem. And from that, obviously, flows a lot of potential problems — most importantly, that people who need coverage who have a preexisting condition, who are cancer survivors but don’t have affordable care now, need that care. That’s what we’re focused on.
And remember, every one of the Democrats who voted for this and believed in it and fought for it, and with the President defended it against the constant assault by Republicans and outside opponents, continued to believe in it, and believe it’s the right thing to do. In yesterday’s meeting or in any other meeting about this, the concerns that Democrats have about the rollout of the marketplaces are the same concerns that the President has, which is that the website is not functioning effectively — that’s a problem. That information isn’t getting to the individuals who are getting notices in a way that makes clear to them that they have a lot of options and they may qualify for Medicaid, they may qualify for tax credits — that’s a problem.
Also a problem, as the President identified yesterday, is that there are a number of states in the Union — including in Texas, a very large state — where governors made the decision essentially to refuse, on behalf of their constituents, assistance to their constituents in the expansion of the Medicaid program — millions and millions of Americans who would qualify for coverage under expanded Medicaid who are being denied that coverage because of the ideological decisions made by some in different states, because of the decision by the Supreme Court that allowed them to make that.
Now, we’re working with governors across the country about that decision-making process, because in the end, as we’ve seen in Ohio and Arizona and other states, not just Democrats but Republicans are recognizing that this is the right thing to do for their constituents, that they have Ohioans and Floridians and others who want and deserve the benefits that are afforded by the Affordable Care Act. So that’s what we’re focused on.
What I said yesterday about politics versus policy is that the President is focused on getting the policy right. He is not pleased with the fact that an aspect of the implementation here of the marketplaces and the rollout has not gone well. And his energy is focused on working to make that website more effective for the American people.
When it comes to the ongoing debate about health insurance reform versus the absence of reform, I think that I know the President and I know the Democrats are going to be where they’ve been, which is they think it’s the right thing to do. And Republicans who argue that it should be repealed and offer nothing in replace are arguing — don’t forget — that the provision within the Affordable Care Act that forbids insurance companies to deny coverage if you have a preexisting condition would be removed; that kids who now are able to get insurance under their parents’ plans up through the age of 26 would lose that privilege; that the benefits given already to seniors for their prescription drug bills would be removed.
And it’s interesting to hear sometimes critics say, well, they like this provision, they like that provision. But anybody who knows anything about this knows that you can’t make sure that folks with preexisting conditions get coverage if you don’t have the individual responsibility provision. The whole has to work. And we’re going to keep fighting for what we believe is necessary, which is providing this affordable, quality health insurance to millions of Americans.
Q Jay, back on Iran, you said a few minutes ago that the U.S. and Israel shared the same goal: preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Yet, apparently, there’s a big difference brewing with Israel on this negotiating strategy right now. Netanyahu said today that this evolving deal would be a historic mistake. To what extent are you concerned that you’ve got to split with Israel —
MR. CARNEY: Look, there is no daylight between Israel and the United States, between the President and the Prime Minister when it comes to the objective of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And all options remain on the table to achieve this objective. We’ve made that clear all along. We now, because of the effectiveness of the sanctions regime that this administration helped put in place and led the way in putting in place, [have] an opportunity to explore whether or not the leadership in Tehran is serious about living up to its international obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to the IAEA and to the United Nations Security Council.
And it is absolutely the right approach, in our view, to test whether or not they’re serious, and to do that in a careful way that would have as its first step an agreement to — potentially, if there is an agreement — to halt all activity, advancement, rather, on Iran’s nuclear program and to potentially roll it back; and in exchange for that, to allow for some temporary, moderate relief, but reversible relief. And then we would explore whether or not — in a verifiable, transparent and meaningful way — Iran was willing to assure the international community that it has forsaken its nuclear weapons program.
And we believe — and the reason to do that is because we believe, as we’ve said all along, that the best way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon is to do it diplomatically through Iran’s agreement and in a way that is verifiable and transparent, because alternative means of addressing this program are not as effective necessarily, certainly not for the longer term.
Q You spoke of the idea of buying time. What’s to prevent Iran from playing for time during this phased-in process that appears to be playing out here?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, the point I made earlier is that the first step would address Iran’s most advanced nuclear activities, increased transparency so Iran will not be able to use the cover of talks to advance its program, and thereby create time and space as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement. It would stop Iran from making progress from advancing its nuclear program for the first time in nearly a decade.
But your question is a good one because it goes to the heart of verification here and our insistence that we take steps that are concrete and that actions are concrete, and they’re not just promises. So any step we took would have to be verifiable.
Q Does the administration trust Iran? Does it trust the leadership on the other side of the table right now?
MR. CARNEY: We have a long history of mistrust here and a reason to be highly skeptical. We are pursuing U.S. national security interests when we engage in substantive and serious negotiations through the P5-plus-1. We do it in a way that makes clear that any progress we make has to be verifiable and transparent, because our goal and our objective is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And there is unity within the P5-plus-1 on both the objective and the process that we’re pursuing at this time.
Q As a general principle, if the Congress were to send the President a measure that constrains the ability to provide the limited, reversible relief that you were talking about, would he use his veto to protect the momentum in this process?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’re working with Congress and we consult with Congress. And we have requested a pause in new sanctions, but it’s not a decision to support or not support sanctions. I think that we have demonstrated our ample willingness to ratchet up sanctions in order to put the kind of pressure on Iran that has led to this point.
So the willingness to pause while we explore this possibility is really a demonstration of support for the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated resolution to this issue rather than a march to war or resorting to the other ways that we might have to address this problem if we can’t reach a negotiated, verified agreement.
Q But if Congress is trying to stop the President’s waiver authority, does that not call into question the U.S.’s ability to deliver on an interim agreement that he’s talking about?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, we’re negotiating and consulting with Congress over this issue, and updating them on what we’re doing and what the P5-plus-1 is doing. And our belief is that it is in the interest of the United States to pursue the possibility here of achieving an agreement, to do so in a way that ensures that any relief that might be attached to a first step that would halt advancement on the Iranian nuclear program and maybe roll back some of its advances, that the relief attached to it is reversible, is temporary, is moderate, and would hold in abeyance the opportunity for Congress and the United States in general, as well as our allies and partners in this effort, to terminate any sanctions relief and to in fact ratchet up sanctions pressure, if necessary, at the opportune moment if that moment arises.
Roger, and then Dan.
Q The GDP numbers that were out today showed a huge buildup of inventories, which suggests a potential slowdown of the economy in the fourth quarter, as they work off those inventories. How concerned is the President about a slowdown of the economy in the fourth quarter, and might he be addressing that in the economic speech in New Orleans tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: Roger, I think I can trust that you of all people read the blog post that we put out in the wake of the third-quarter figure.
Q I didn’t see any reference to the fourth quarter.
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think we can say about the fourth quarter that the first month of that fourth quarter included a shutdown. And we fully expect, as well as outside economists and analysts expect, for that shutdown imposed upon the American people by House Republicans will have a negative impact on the economy and will have a negative impact on job creation. I don’t think there’s any question about it.
I think you’re going to hear from the Office of Management and Budget later today about an assessment that we’ve done on the costs of the shutdown, and others have done assessments as well. So in terms of analyzing today’s data, I would refer you to the CEA and the blog post. I think that what is true is that the 2.8 percent growth represents solid growth — the 10th straight quarter of economic growth and an increase in growth each of the last four quarters. And it comes in over estimates, as I understand it, over consensus estimates — and that’s good. And I think the private sector growth embedded in that number is even more robust.
And what it tells us is that this economy is poised to continue to grow and perhaps grow more rapidly and create more and better jobs, and that Washington needs to stop throwing up obstacles in the way of positive economic growth; doing things for ideological and political reasons that actually harm and reverse the progress that we’ve made. That’s what happened in October. And I know, because other stories arise and they’re important and they need to be covered, that the shutdown now seems like a long time ago, but the economic consequences of that foolish pursuit are with us today and will be with us for a long time.
There are people in America who do not have a job today because House Republicans chose to shut down the government over their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Q Will he talk about infrastructure in New Orleans tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: I think you can expect that he will talk about the need to build infrastructure as part of a broader effort to strengthen our economy for the long term and to increase exports. The President takes a comprehensive approach to the economy and the investments that he believes we need to make, the kinds of investments that have traditionally been supported by lawmakers of both parties. Infrastructure is a key part of that.
I mean, the virtue of investment in infrastructure is that it’s a double win because you get the immediate effect of building and the jobs created from that, and the economic energy and activity created by that, and then the long-term benefit to the economy of improved infrastructure, whether it’s ports or airports or roads or highways or bridges.
I mean, these kinds of — that’s why when you get something that has all that benefit, both near-term and long-term, you tend to get bipartisan support. And there has been bipartisan support for that kind of robust infrastructure investment in the past. We believe, and the President has put forward, that there are ways to achieve a bipartisan agreement for infrastructure investment and we’re going to keep pursuing that.
MR. CARNEY: Steve. Oh, and then Dan. I said you next. Sorry.
Q Jay, I wanted to ask about — getting back to this question of what Congress is proposing. A lot of members of Congress are proposing on this question of if you like your plan, you can keep it, period — the President’s promise. Mary Landrieu’s proposal, she calls it the “keeping-the-promise bill.” The promise she’s talking about, of course, is the President’s promise. What would be so bad about grandfathering in all of these plans that people have now that many of them clearly like, but are contacting their lawmakers and are very upset about? What would be so bad about signing a bill like that into law?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Steve, what I can tell you is that, as I mentioned earlier, we are concerned about those individuals and concerned about the need to get them all the information that they should have so that they’re aware of the options available to them, and the fact that, again, more than half will be able to purchase higher-quality insurance coverage for the same or lower cost; that half will qualify for tax credits; that up to a million will qualify for enrollment in Medicaid.
I think the broader question — and I don’t know the specific legislation or the details of the specific legislation that you’re referencing — goes to, if we say that every insurance plan that doesn’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s standards can continue in perpetuity, you’re essentially saying there are no standards to be met. And it is certainly the belief of the drafters of the law and of the President that one of the purposes here is to set some minimum standards for coverage so that every American has some — who gets insurance coverage has some security and certainty about the benefits they’re going to receive, and that you don’t have — which happens I think all too frequently for some individuals — you don’t have the rude awakening when you get a bill and find out that the plan you have that you thought would cover your costs upon further inspection does not.
Q Senator Landrieu’s bill has some things in it. It says those people who are going to keep their grandfathered plans would be told about the deficiencies, would be told that they don’t have hospitalization, for example. They would be informed.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q And that they could keep it not necessarily in perpetuity, but as long as they keep paying their bills. What would be so wrong about letting them keep the plan that they like?
MR. CARNEY: Steve, all I can tell you is that the reason why there are minimum standards is so that all Americans have that certainty and have that guarantee of basic quality insurance coverage. We’re concerned about the individuals, and I’m sure we’ll be discussing them both here and elsewhere going forward. But we’ve seen again and again, I think in some of the reporting, that not everybody out there who’s getting notices is getting all of the information they need to ensure that they know that they have an enhanced array of options available to them. So we need to work on that.
More broadly, if I could also mention that it was also the case that with some of these plans there was an option for early renewal that insurance companies and the insured could take advantage of.
And what is true, too, is that there’s an opportunity here for insurers to take advantage of the fact that there’s going to be a huge influx of people in the market now, purchasing insurance, and there is a desire to make sure that all those individuals are getting the information about the new plans that are available.
But our focus right now is making sure that these individuals are aware of what their options are and making sure that they avail themselves of their options so that they can discover that in fact, in many cases, they’re going to get better coverage for less.
Q Would the President veto such proposals? There’s going to be one on the House floor next week Fred Upton’s proposal.
MR. CARNEY: Steve, you’ve loosely described a proposal that I haven’t read and I’m not sure is on paper. So for me to issue a statement of administration policy about it I think would be getting a little ahead of myself.
Q Thanks. So based on reports, this phased agreement could — I mean, we could have an announcement on this as early as Friday. Will the President be actually speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who described this thing as a, as Pete mentioned, “a mistake of historic proportions,” to ask him to support at least the first phase or other phases of the program?
MR. CARNEY: The President, as you know, speaks regularly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I’m sure will be speaking to him again in the near future. I don’t have a planned conversation to preview for you. This is an issue that the two discuss frequently, that our counterparts discuss frequently. Again, we have an immense amount of cooperation with the Israelis on security issues and on the challenge of Iran, and that continues. And it’s enormously valuable to both countries in our view. So that conversation will continue.
And again, I think it’s important to note that the goal here and the objective here is identical, which is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we are where we are because of the consensus that the President built around the need to respond to Iran’s refusal to meet its international obligations, the demonstration of the fact that Iran was the problem, that Iran had declined to come into compliance. And the result was the sanctions regime that has exacted a price from Iran, and that’s why they’re at the table now in large part.
So the policy thus far has been effective, but we are where we are. And the purpose here is to get to a place where we can verifiably and in a meaningful way, and in a transparent way, make sure that Iran is honoring its commitments and has forsaken its nuclear weapons program. We’re exploring the potential, and we’re working in close consultation with our allies and partners, including Israel on this issue, and we are obviously working through the P5-plus-1 on it.
April, last one.
Q Jay, two questions. One, President Obama is having a screening tonight on a movie about Nelson Mandela’s life. Nelson Mandela is an iconic figure that the President has a close kindred spirit with. Has this White House reached out to the Mandela family recently to update on his health condition? Have they talked to the family recently?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any presidential conversations to read out to you. Obviously, we are in consultation with some degree of frequency with the South African government because of the importance of the bilateral relationship.
When it comes to Nelson Mandela’s health, I would not comment beyond referring you to his family and to the South African government.
Q And lastly, earlier in this briefing, someone in the front row talked about consequences. Is this White House ready to start talking about consequences after all the problems with the rollout after four years with this website, the ACA website?
MR. CARNEY: Could you be more specific?
Q Consequences against those who built the website. Simply put, I mean, they put it out and it wasn’t working.
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President is focused on getting it right going forward and not Monday morning quarterbacking. Right now, the intensity of the effort has to be on making sure that the improvements are made to the website so that the marketplaces are functioning effectively for the American people.
It’s important that the teams that helped build the architecture here are in place working with some of the new tech experts that we’ve brought in, because obviously they know best what the sort — the insides of the website and the Internet architecture. So we’re focused on fixing the problems, not on Monday morning quarterbacking or singling out people for blame. Right now, we need to get this thing working, and that’s what the President has insisted that the teams at HHS and CMS do.
Q But this is such a historic piece. Even the Vice President even said — made mention, when he finally signed it into law, how much of a big deal it was historically. But then, this is a key — yes, you know what I’m talking about. (Laughter.) But this is such a key piece, a cornerstone of this administration. And for it to go out so big and so wrong, I mean, was there not a tongue-lashing if there were not consequences of heads rolling?
MR. CARNEY: As a rule, I don’t read out internal meetings. I would simply say that the President, as he has told you, has not been pleased with the way that the website has functioned. But he’s focused on, and made clear to his team that they should be focused on fixing the problems so that the American people get the benefits they deserve and they get them sooner rather than later.
As you mentioned, this is obviously an important piece of legislation that I’m sure will be looked at for many years in the future. And we don’t want to deprive historians of the opportunity to give a lot of analysis. So, for now, we’ll just focus on fixing the problems.
Q Jay, can you confirm that Senator McCain is coming to the White House?
Q Is it about Iraq or immigration or —
MR. CARNEY: The President and Senator McCain — thank you for the question. Yes, Senator McCain, as I think he announced, is coming to the White House to meet with the President. Senator McCain and the President meet and speak with some regularity, as you know. They tend to address a range of issues. There’s no specific topic today, as I understand it. I’m sure they’ll talk and touch on a number of subjects.
Q Jay, can you do an ENDA reaction? There were 10 Republicans in the Senate who voted for cloture. It goes to the House now. How much political capital is the President going to invest in pressuring the House to do something?
MR. CARNEY: The President believes it is absolutely the right thing to do to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. And we’ll have a more I’m sure formal reaction to the Senate vote. If that, in fact, has happened while I’ve been up at the podium that is good news. And we commend the senators who voted “yes.” And we hope and insist that the House take up the legislation.
To oppose this kind of legislation is to announce that you want to be left behind by history. The necessity of making sure that every American has equal rights is fundamental to our history and to who we are. And that’s what this legislation represents. Some of the objections that I’ve heard from members in the House are reminiscent of objections that opponents of other civil rights legislation put forward. And they were wrong then and they’re wrong now.
This is the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because we’re all equal. And so the House should pass it. The Senate has, and we congratulate the Senate. Thank you all.
2:20 P.M. EST