The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Boston, MA, 10/30/2013

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Boston, Massachusetts

2:00 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to the site of Game Six of the World Series, and the great city of Boston, Massachusetts.

As you saw from a piece of paper that we put out last night, the President will be talking about the Affordable Care Act and how the law that was passed in Massachusetts a couple years ago had served as a model for the Affordable Care Act; and how the result that they have seen in the Massachusetts market and the large number of people who have taken advantage of availability to quality, affordable health insurance is indicative of the appetite that exists all across the country for quality, affordable health insurance. 

So the President will talk about that a little bit more this afternoon.  And I don’t think I have any announcements at the top, so with that, we’ll open it up for questions.

Q    On the health care website that’s being raised on the Hill today, and that of security, can you talk about whether there are problems with security on the website, and if the Americans who have used it can be confident that their personal information is secure?

MR. EARNEST:  Nedra, as you pointed out, Secretary Sebelius was asked this specific question when she testified on the Hill today, and she was able to verify that is secure.  So people who are going to that website and submitting their personal information can be confident -- based on the analysis that’s been done by HHS, CMS, and other technology experts who are involved in this enterprise -- that that information is secure and will be kept private.

Part of that is because they’ve been doing testing throughout this implementation period, and the website will continue to be subject to ongoing security testing to verify that the information that is provided on that website is secure.

Q    And that she should be held responsible for this “debacle,” given that she’s saying that, I just wanted to see if the President feels fully confident in her leadership on this.

MR. EARNEST:  The President has complete confidence in Secretary Sebelius.  She has been responsible, as you pointed out, for the broader implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  That also means that she’s responsible for the construction of some of these consumer protections that have gone into place that have gone into place very smoothly.  She’s responsible for the policy work that’s been done to construct the individual marketplaces that are offering a wide variety of options to people who don’t currently have insurance so they can purchase insurance for themselves and their family, and that they can do so at an affordable price, and that they can get a quality level of benefits out of it.

So she certainly is responsible for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and she took responsibility for many of the problems that are evident with the website.  But she also deserves credit for the other aspects of the Affordable Care Act implementation process that has gone well.

Q    Did the President watch any of her testimony?  Did he talk to her before or after?  And what did he think of how she did?

MR. EARNEST:  I have not had a chance to talk to him about whether he watched the testimony today, and I didn’t have a chance to watch it before either.  But others at the White House did have a chance to watch portions of her testimony and thought she did a very good job of explaining to the American public and to the relevant congressional committee that has oversight over HHS about the efforts that are underway to fix the website and the efforts that are underway to continue the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to make sure that, for the first time, people all across the country, or at least for millions of people all across the country, that they’ll have access to quality, affordable health insurance.

Q    Any reaction to the four Pinocchios rating from Glenn Kessler today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I didn’t actually see what Mr. Kessler’s case was.  But I think it was on this question of the President’s comments about people being able to keep their health insurance.

I don’t have a specific reaction to the article.  But let me reiterate a little bit about what Jay said, because it’s important for people to understand exactly what’s at work here.  And I know many people will get their information by reading the transcript of the gaggle, so bear with me as I repeat some of what Jay said at least.

The important thing for people to understand is that 80 percent of Americans obtain their health insurance through their employer, through Medicaid, through Medicare, through the Veterans Administration, and are not subject to receiving letters like the ones that have gotten so much attention in the last couple of weeks.  There are another 15 percent of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, so they obviously aren’t getting letters from their insurance company because they don’t have an insurance company right now.  But thanks to the Affordable Care Act, they do have access for the first time on the individual market to quality, affordable health insurance.

So what we’re talking about here is the 5 percent of Americans who could possibly get a letter like this from their insurance company.  And the fact of the matter is that if you have an insurance policy that you purchased on the individual market, that you have had since the day that the Affordable Care Act was signed, you can keep it.  That is a fact.  That fact remains true.

Now, the question is what happens to those people who, since the Affordable Care Act was signed, have received letters from their insurance company informing them that their benefits have been cut, or that their premiums have been increased.  That is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to people who have relied on the individual insurance market to get their insurance coverage.  Those kinds of downgrades to their insurance policy that people on an individual insurance market are experiencing is exactly the kind of problem that the Affordable Care Act can solve.  The fact of the matter is, part of the protections that are in put in place are put in place to ensure -- or to protect the underinsured.

So what that means is that now, because those policies have been changed by the insurance companies, the insurance companies are now required by the Affordable Care Act to offer basic protections to their customers.  That means they are required to protect their customers from being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition.  They are required to cover mental health care.  They are required to cover maternity care.  They are required to not charge women double for their insurance costs just because they’re women.

So if Republicans think that that’s a bad idea, they should say so.  They should explain to women all across the country why it’s okay for insurance companies to charge them double just because they’re women.  That’s a difficult position for Republicans to take, but I’ll be interested to see if they make that argument.  And the fact of the matter is, because of these protections -- these protections are an important part of the reason why this administration is working day and night to make sure that we successfully implement the Affordable Care Act.

Q    Is the President going to announce, though -- be that as it may, is the President going to address people’s anger over this in his speech today?  Is that going to be part of what he seeks to explain further?

MR. EARNEST:  I think you’re right that people are justifiably unhappy with the individual insurance market; they have been for years.  For years, we’ve seen people get dropped from their coverage just because they get sick.  We’ve seen people be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition.  So the President will absolutely talk about some of those concerns that people have.

Q    Can we do an NSA?

Q    The Post is reporting about the NSA, that they’ve been infiltrating data centers for Google, for Yahoo -- secretly doing this to obtain internal information.  I’m wondering if the White House has a response to that or can confirm any details in those reports.

MR. EARNEST:  I saw that report shortly before I got on the plane this afternoon, so I haven’t been fully briefed on this.  But I did see that General Alexander had a response to this question.  So for now I’d refer you to his comment.

Q    And were his comments speaking on behalf of the President or on behalf of this White House?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen the full -- it’s difficult for me to comment exactly on his comments because I haven’t seen all of them.  But suffice it to say he is the person who’s in the best position to speak to those questions that were raised by those reports.

Q    Do you know whether the President has been briefed on what the NSA actually did with Yahoo and Google, or whether this is another instance where something may have appeared in his Presidential Daily Brief but not in such detail that he would have actually known about it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s difficult for me to comment on that because I haven’t seen the full report.  But if we have more on this today, we’ll make sure that you guys get it.

Q    And General Alexander, what exactly was he speaking to in the comments earlier today?  Because I believe the beginning of his comment said he was unfamiliar with the report. 

MR. EARNEST:  Like I said, all I've seen is some of the news coverage of General Alexander's comments responding to -- purportedly responding to the report.

Q    Can we ask you guys to do a statement as the day goes by in a little bit more detail so that we know what the White House position is?

MR. EARNEST:  If we have a response to those reports, then I will make sure that you get it.  I can't guarantee that we will.  But if we do, then I will make sure that you get it. 

Q    On health care for a minute, was Governor Romney invited to attend today's event?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't believe that he was.  But obviously, Governor Romney's efforts to work in bipartisan fashion to pass health care reform in Massachusetts will be the subject of the President's comments today.  And the President views, and the people at the White House believe that despite the many differences in views that Governor Romney and President Obama vigorously debated on the campaign trail last year, the successful implementation of health care reform in Massachusetts is an aspect of Governor Romney's legacy that he should justifiably be proud of.

Q    Governor Romney put out a statement earlier today.  I don't know if the President has had a chance to see it, but he talks about what he sees as differences between the Massachusetts law and the federal law.  And he says that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act federally has been an embarrassment for the country.  And I'm wondering if there's any response you might have to that.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I've already said about Governor Romney's success in implementing health care reform in Massachusetts is effectively a response to Governor Romney's comments.  I saw his comments earlier today. 

The administration has acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act implementation process has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked.  But we are confident that when we get to the end of this enrollment period on March 31st, that this will have significantly improved, that the website itself should be functioning smoothly by the end of next month.

And that for many of the reasons that people in Massachusetts were excited about the success of health care reform in Massachusetts, I think people all across the country are going to be excited about the success of the Affordable Care Act implementation and the millions of Americans that will benefit from it.

Q    One last thing about the 2006 ceremony in Massachusetts was that Ted Kennedy was involved in it as well, and there was a bipartisan sort of appeal to be made.  How have you tried to make today's event a bipartisan event?  And has that been possible, or have there just not been key Republicans who have been willing to cooperate on that front?  Can you talk about that effort?  Will we see anyone today who sort of fits that role?

MR. EARNEST:  I'll get you some more information about who actually is attending the event.  But what I can tell you is that the people in the audience are people who have either benefited from the health care reform in the state of Massachusetts or have been instrumental in implementing it and ensuring the success of that health care reform effort in Massachusetts.  And I'm confident that there will be Republicans in the audience.

So the question I think is -- illustrates the desire that this administration has to work with Republicans to implement and ensure the success of the Affordable Care Act, not to score a political victory but, frankly, to ensure that millions of Americans can maximize the benefits of that law. 

What we have seen time and time again -- well, actually, let me say it this way.  What we saw with the implementation of Medicare Part D during the Bush administration, this was a policy that was strongly advocated by a Republican administration.  Democrats in Congress raised significant concerns about this program because, as you’ll recall, it was unpaid for, so it contributed significantly to our deficit problems.  And for that reason, many Democrats vigorously opposed the law as it was making its way through Congress. 

However, after it was passed by the Congress on the back of a Republican -- largely on the back of a Republican majority in Congress, and signed into law by President Bush, what you saw, in large part, were Democrats all across the country and even Democratic members of Congress working to ensure the success of that program -- not because they wanted to hand President Bush a political victory; far from it.  But what they wanted to see was they wanted to see the American people succeed.  They wanted the American people, particularly in this case, American seniors, to benefit from the law.

And I think, unfortunately, what we've seen when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, is we’ve seen too many Republicans all across the country rooting for failure.  Not rooting for failure of the Affordable Care Act, necessarily, but in some cases, out really rooting for the failure of the American people who seek to sign up for health insurance, who for the first time can benefit from the protections that are guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.

That's unfortunate.  But you're right, it is a notable difference between the implementation of Medicare Part D and the implementation of the health care reform law in Massachusetts. 

Why are you laughing at me?  (Laughter.) 

Q    Because you made the point.  I didn’t -- it wasn’t my point. 

MR. EARNEST:  Okay, fair enough.  I'll take credit for making that point so cogently. 

Margaret Talev, for the record, does not get any credit for making that point as cogently as I just did.  (Laughter.)  Duly noted. 

Q    Josh, back on the NSA, apparently, a delegation of German intelligence officials and some Europeans were at the White House this morning.  Any chance for a readout?  Where I think they met Susan Rice.  Would you have any info on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have a lot of details.  I can confirm for you, however, that the German National Security Advisor Heusgen and the Intelligence Coordinator of the German Chancellor Heiss met at the White House today with some national security officials in the Obama administration.  That meeting included National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, the Deputy Director of the NSA Chris Inglis, and a few other White House officials who were there.

This meeting was the follow-up to a previous conversation between Chancellor Merkel and President Obama, and part of our efforts to resolve some of the tension that has arisen out of some reports about surveillance activities reportedly being conducted by the U.S.

If we have a more detailed readout, it will come from my colleagues at the national security staff.  But I can confirm for you that that meeting either is occurring right now or has recently just occurred. 

Q    Can you confirm they’re working on a pact?  And is that something the U.S. thinks is possible -- like a U.S.-German pact?

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not in a position to confirm that.  But if we have a more detailed readout of the meeting, it will come from my NSS colleagues.

Q    Josh, there were reports yesterday afternoon that the President was going to meet with some congressional Republicans on immigration.  That meeting never ended up happening.  Is there anything on the horizon right now for the President reaching out to House Republicans to try to get the Senate bill on the floor or to get some kind of immigration bill on the floor of the House?

MR. EARNEST:  It is true that the White House has reached out to some House Republicans to try to set up a meeting to talk about a bipartisan effort to make progress on immigration reform.  The bipartisan progress that we think we can make in the House would be built on the bipartisan progress that's already been made in the Senate.  There is a bipartisan bill that was passed by the Senate earlier this spring, and we are hopeful that House Republicans and House Democrats can work together to try to take similar bipartisan action on immigration reform in the House.

What I can tell you is that the only thing that prevented some of those meetings from occurring this week were some genuine scheduling challenges on both ends, but we're going to continue to be in touch with House Republicans.  And whether that is a meeting with the President or a meeting at the staff level, we're going to continue to solicit ideas from House Republicans about how we can move this ball forward.

There are a lot of House Democrats who are eager to make progress on this legislation.  The President, I think, has made pretty clear that he’s eager to make progress on this legislation.  So if we can have some conversations with House Republicans about how to make progress, we'll certainly have those conversations.  And I think you can expect to see that outreach continue.

Q    Is the White House still confident it can be done by the end of the year?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s certainly no good reason it shouldn’t.

Q    Are there any foreign leader calls that the President has made in the last day or so, or that he’s making right now on the plane that you can read out to us in relation to the NSA or anything else?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I'm aware of.  But if there are some calls that are made that I can read out, then I'll make sure and let you guys know.  I don't know of any that are scheduled for today.

Q    Can you tell us, on the World Series tonight, did he at any point consider going?  Did it just seem like too much of an inconvenience for everyone else?  And is he rooting for either team?  Does he have a prediction on tonight?

MR. EARNEST:  The President is an avid White Sox fan and I don't think he’s going to abandon his loyalty to the White Sox in favor of either of the teams that are playing tonight.  The President did, however, spend a couple of years of his life in Boston while he was in law school, so he understands the passion of Red Sox fans and understands how excited they are, justifiably, about the prospect of winning the World Series in Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years.  So that is a pretty exciting prospect whether you're a Red Sox fan or not.

The President did not consider attending the game tonight.  As you know, the President is regularly mindful of the impact that his presence can have on the ability of other people to go about their lives, and in this case, to enjoy a World Series game. 

So the President is not planning to attend and didn’t really ever seriously consider attending.  But I haven't talked to him about it, but I'd bet good money on the fact that he’s going to watch the game on TV tonight. 

Q    Josh, Halloween is tomorrow.  Can you give us any insight about the President and the First Lady and the First Daughters, what they plan to wear, what they're going to do tomorrow night?

MR. EARNEST:  Good question.  I don't at this point know exactly what the plans are for Halloween festivities tomorrow.  But I think before the end of the day we'll have more on that, even if it’s not information about the costumes. 

Okay, we're good?

Q    The budget conference started today.  Is a grand bargain out of the question by the December 15th sort of timeline?

MR. EARNEST:  I did see some of the coverage of the Budget Conference Committee and saw that it got underway today.  That is a welcome development in the eyes of the President.  For a long time, we have seen our Republicans on Capitol Hill -- Republicans in the House to be specific -- advocate for a return to regular order.  Regular order is the Senate passes a budget, the House passes a budget, and both sides come together in a conference to try to reconcile the difference between those budgets.  So we're pleased to see that House Republicans have decided to contribute to that process constructively.  And today's meeting is a testament to that.

In terms of what's possible in the context of those meetings, that is something that will have to be determined by the bipartisan participants in that conference committee.  The President has put forward his own ideas for how he thinks we can address some of our budget challenges moving forward.  He has put forward a budget that represents a genuine compromise between priorities that have long been championed by Republicans and priorities that have long been championed by Democrats, including members of this administration.

What’s included in that budget proposal are continued investments in research and development and infrastructure, early childhood education.  And those are the kinds of investments that will have a significant impact on the nation's long-term economic strength and the long-term economic success of middle-class families in this country.  The President believes that those should be the priorities.  What’s also included in the President's budget are some proposals that would reflect a compromise that would allow us to do even more to reduce our deficit.

So it's the President's view, and it's pretty clearly articulated in the President's own budget proposal, that we don't have to choose between making these critical investments and continuing on the path of deficit reduction. 

So the President has put forward his own proposal for doing this.  The President hopes that Democrats and Republicans in the conference committee will carefully consider the President's ideas, but ultimately it will be up to them.  We are hopeful that at a minimum out of this process that the Democrats and Republicans can come together to replace the sequester.  These are the arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts that have had a terrible impact on our economy and restrain economic growth, and have even had an impact on our military readiness and our national security.

So we're hopeful that they'll be able to make some progress out of the budget conference.  The White House will be in the loop as those discussions continue.  But ultimately, any progress that's made in that conference committee, it will have to be up the Democratic and Republican members of Congress who are serving on that committee. 

Thanks, everybody.  We’ll see you on the ground.

2:21 P.M. EDT

White House Shareables