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Top Democrat Pelosi denies party members retreating from Obamacare

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By David Morgan and Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Sunday that her party would not retreat from President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare reform law, despite unrelenting Republican opposition and emerging signs of market turmoil for consumers and health insurers.

Two days after 39 House Democrats joined Republicans on a bill aimed at undermining the law known as Obamacare, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi denied that Democrats have lost confidence in Obama's ability to overcome a botched rollout of his signature domestic policy achievement.

"There's a lot of whoop-de-do and ado about what's happening," Pelosi told NBC's "Meet the Press" program.

"It doesn't mean: Oh, it's a political issue, so we're going to run away from it. No. It's too valuable for the American people," she said, claiming similar numbers of Democratic lawmakers have joined Republicans on votes that challenged Obamacare in the past.

Her comments come at a time of intensifying concern for Democrats, who face a tough midterm election fight or control of Congress in 2014.

"I don't think you can tell what will happen next year, but I will tell you this: Democrats stand tall in support of the Affordable Care Act," said Pelosi, who got Obamacare through the House in 2010 despite united Republican opposition.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also downplayed Friday's vote by Democrats. "They're just responding to the worries of their constituents," she said on ABC's "This Week" program. "If they're trying to ally someone's concern, just say listen, we're going to make sure there's something affordable."

Democrats have been hit by a public backlash over millions of people who have had their policies canceled because the plans do not meet new consumer protections mandated by the law. The administration's troubled enrollment Website, HealthCare.gov, also is still not working properly, more than six weeks after its launch.

Friday's Democratic support for a House Republican bill that would allow insurers to continue selling older policies could be a sign that the administration's coalition in Congress could be fraying, according to analysts. Several Democrats have already produced similar legislation.

Pressure from his Democratic Party prompted Obama to say last week that insurers could extend their existing policies for a year even if they don't complying with the law.

But that decision stirred objections from insurers and some state insurance regulators about higher costs for consumers and potential solvency threats for insurance companies.

"What I really want to focus on is how do we address these reasonable problems. We have an interest in doing so, so ... the markets don't blow up," Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, told the "Fox News Sunday" program.

Ignagni, who described insurers as having "a policy disagreement" with the White House, appeared with Ben Nelson, chief executive of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which represents state regulators.

Nelson said states are worried that insurers could get saddled with unexpected losses as a result of the so-called Obamacare fix that extends non-compliant policies for a year. "They want to make certain that this doesn't shift the cost to the point that insurers face and risk insolvency," he said.

MANDATE ON AMERICANS

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates that most Americans be enrolled in health coverage by March 31 or face a penalty. But the administration has made only partial progress fixing technical glitches that have made HealthCare.gov inaccessible to consumers in the 36 states it serves as it approaches a key December 15 enrollment deadline to receive coverage beginning January 1.

Pelosi acknowledged that HealthCare.gov will work well for only about 80 percent of visitors by November 30, when officials have promised to have it operating smoothly for the vast majority of them. That could leave 1-in-5 potential enrollees mired in glitches during a brief two-week window before December 15. "That's just by the end of this month. It's not acceptable ongoing," she said.

Obama met with insurance executives on Friday at the White House for what was described as a "brainstorming" session about cancellation victims and the enrollment challenges. Both sides have since pledged to work together.

The outward image of cooperation has done little to hide concerns. Insurers and regulators worry that cheaper plans with fewer protections and less-robust coverage will entice younger and healthier consumers to buy them, leaving Obamacare's new online marketplaces with older, sicker beneficiaries who cost more to insure.

The administration is looking at ways to insulate insurers from losses, but there has been no decision about what to do.

"Under the rules of law of large numbers, which is what you get with actuarial science, the more people you have in the plan, generally the better the plan is. So excluding certain people from the plan creates certain issues," Nelson said.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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