Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Jay Carney, 3/31/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the White House. Thanks for being here. Thank you for your patience. Before I take your questions let me note that, as some of you may know, today is the last day to sign up for health insurance this year in the marketplace. As you can see by the lines around the country this weekend, we are seeing a surge in enrollment. More than 6 million people have signed up, a remarkable statement given where we started back in October.
A few basic facts to remind you of: If you don't have insurance, today is the deadline. If you don't sign up, you may not be able to get coverage until next year. More and more Americans are finding quality, affordable coverage. Six out of 10 people without insurance can get coverage for $100 a day [month] or less.
We're encouraging everyone to spread the word to their friends and family: You can sign up at healthcare.gov, get help in person in your community, or call the healthcare call center at 1-800-318-2596 -- that's 1-800-318-2596 -- for help in 150 languages.
With that, I will take your questions. Julie.
Q Thanks, Jay. Is it that surge in enrollment that is causing healthcare.gov to be down right now?
MR. CARNEY: There is a technical problem that the tech team is on. There are currently 100,000 people in the system who are enrolling, and there is no problem for them to enroll. For the causes of different glitches that are being addressed I would refer you to CMS, but as has been the case all along when there’s a problem like this, it gets addressed and addressed quickly.
Q We just haven't been able to get an answer to this latest one. This morning, we were told that it was a software glitch, it was not a volume issue. So I'm just trying to figure out if it's a volume issue that you're dealing with right now, or if it --
MR. CARNEY: Sure, and what I'm telling you is that I would refer you to the experts in terms of -- because this is obviously very fast --
Q We just haven't been able to --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think they’re working on it and when they can give you an answer -- what I think is important, because I know there’s been a lot of focus on glitches, is that there has been a remarkable story since the dark days of October and November, which has resulted in a situation where here on the last day of enrollment we're looking at a number substantially larger than 6 million people enrolled. And I daresay that there are few people in this room, including some of the folks who work in the White House, who would have predicted that we would get to that number.
And it's because of the remarkable persistence and hard work of the teams that fix the problems at healthcare.gov, and it's because of the determination of the American people who so clearly demonstrated the desire for quality, affordable health insurance that they would not be deterred, despite the problems that the system initially presented and which had to be fixed.
So you're seeing some pretty incredible things, including more than 6 million people, as I said, having signed up. We saw people lining up around the block this weekend; 2.9 million visits to the website this weekend. And last week alone, we saw more calls to the call centers than in all of February.
No one expected us to come back from the brink or to surpass the revised CBO projection that 6 million consumers would sign up in year one, but we have. And I think that merits noting in your reports.
Q Do you know when we should expect to get a final six-month enrollment figure? And does the President have any plans to sort of mark the end of the six-month period in any way?
MR. CARNEY: In terms of the final figures, obviously these are things that include not just the figures from the federally run marketplaces but state marketplaces, so the figures that come in are tabulated and aggregated and then presented to you. So I wouldn’t predict at this point when we would have the final, final numbers. As you know, as was the case in December, there will be an opportunity for those who have initiated the process but aren’t able to finish it by midnight tonight to ensure that they get signed up for health insurance. And we won’t know what that universe of people looks like until we get past the deadline tonight.
So what I can tell you is that we expect the numbers to be significant. As we’ve seen in this period, towards the end of the open enrollment period, as we predicted all along, there would be a substantial number of people who, at the very end, would, when faced with the deadline, enroll. And that’s what we’re seeing.
Q And anything about the President planning to mark it in any way?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any scheduling announcements for the President. He’s obviously briefed regularly on the operations and the numbers as they come in and as they become available, and is gratified by what he’s seen in terms of the interest that the American people have demonstrated, the lines over the weekend, proving again that there is a huge appetite across the country for access to quality, affordable health care.
And as promised, there will be millions of people who have signed up through the system and we have yet to see from the critics, who are now grasping for other things to criticize about the Affordable Care Act and the enrollment process, an alternative -- an alternative that doesn’t include taking that insurance away for millions of people, and telling people that if they have a preexisting condition they’re once again at the mercy of the insurance companies, and telling women that they may be charged double what their identical twin brother is charged just because they’re women.
And these are the kinds of things that the Affordable Care Act eliminates. They’re positive benefits that the American people can now enjoy. And we have been about the business, despite the trouble with the rollout in October, of implementing a law that was designed to provide the American people some security that they lacked when it came to access and affordability to health insurance.
Q If I could just ask quickly about Russia -- Secretary Kerry met with Lavrov yesterday, and I’m wondering out of that meeting how serious the President thinks Russia is, President Putin is, about seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine.
MR. CARNEY: It’s, of course, the case that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov did meet to discuss how to resolve this crisis through diplomacy. And we are interested in that, and we’ve made clear that we’re interested in resolving this through diplomacy, but only in a process that respects the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
It will be a difficult process, a diplomatic one, to proceed in the current tense atmosphere, and that’s why we have called on Russia to pull its forces back to their pre-crisis positions and levels. It is also necessary to establish -- for Russia to establish direct dialogue with Ukraine, with international mediation as necessary, and to expand monitoring mechanisms on the ground to address any legitimate concerns about the situation in Ukraine -- for the international community to provide monitors to help that come about.
Above all, we have been clear that the United States will not discuss the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian people. There is no discussion of constitutional change or change in the nature of the relationships of various regions of Ukraine to the center without the participation -- the full participation of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government. At every step in this process we’ve been in close consultation with the government of Ukraine for that reason.
Now, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have agreed to speak again, but no date has been set. State Department may have more information on that.
Q Thanks, Jay. Putin has apparently told Angela Merkel that he is willing to withdraw troops from the Eastern Ukrainian border. I’m wondering what your comment about that is and whether that would be sufficient to deescalate tensions in the region, as you’ve often called for.
MR. CARNEY: Well, we, as I just did, clearly call for the return of Russian troop levels to their pre-crisis -- Russian troops to their pre-crisis positions and levels, and that would include moving them away from the border where they have been conducting supposedly military exercises, but where they have, by their presence and their constitution, raised serious concerns about Russia’s intentions.
That is a piece of what we and our European partners believe Russia needs to do in order to deescalate the situation. They also have to engage in a dialogue, a direct dialogue with the Ukrainian government, with international mediation as necessary. But we’re not going to participate in, and our partners are not going to participate in, a discussion about Ukraine’s future without Ukraine and without the Ukrainian people, because it is for them to decide what, if any, constitutional reforms they adopt, what, if any, changes they may make about the nature and relationship of different regions of Ukraine.
So that’s our position. Now, there have been reports of possible drawdowns of Russian military forces from the border. We haven’t seen that yet, but if they turn out to be accurate that would be a good thing.
Q And Putin has also raised concerns about the Transnistria region of Moldova. Do those concerns signify a different type of territorial ambition on his part?
MR. CARNEY: Well, motivations are something you should ask Russian leaders about. What we have made clear is that we support the government of Moldova and the country of Moldova. And as we have shown in the situation in Ukraine, we demand that a nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty be observed and not violated. And that would be true not just of Ukraine but of Moldova and other nations.
And in the 21st century, the way to address concerns, if they are real, about the rights of ethnic minorities in other countries, neighboring countries, is to do so through established international bodies, with the assistance of international monitors, as we have offered in the case of Ukraine. And that should certainly be the model that Russia observes when it has a concern that it wants addressed.
That is the approach that we have urged upon Russia when it comes to Crimea and other areas of Ukraine that they say they have concerns about because of the numbers of ethnic Russians in those areas. And we have said repeatedly that there are legitimate interests that Russia has in Ukraine, in other nations, because of the long historical and cultural ties that they have, but that does not in any way reflect anything but a need for Russia to uphold international law and to pursue its concerns in a legal manner with the assistance of international organizations.
Q On the Middle East, if I could ask, Secretary Kerry is back in Jerusalem to start -- try to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. What can he offer to persuade Israel to release Palestinian prisoners? And would the release of Jonathan Pollard be something the United States would consider offering as an incentive?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Secretary Kerry and our negotiating team have been working with both parties as they narrow the gaps and determine a path forward. Today, as you noted, Secretary Kerry is returning to the region. Over the course of the last eight months, the Israelis and Palestinians have made tough choices. And as we work with them to determine the next steps, it is necessary and important that they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity that they deserve.
On the question about release of prisoners, this is a complicated issue that is being worked through with the parties, and I’m not going to get into details about that. And with regards to Mr. Pollard, he is a person who was convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence, and I don’t have any update on his situation.
Let me move around a little bit. Peter.
Q Jay, if I can very quickly, the last time we heard from HHS, the number they gave regarding the breakdown -- I know you can't give us the new breakdown numbers -- but the number they gave us initially, I think early March, was 25 percent of those who enrolled were in that young, invincible category. Experts say the number needs to be closer to 40 percent.
MR. CARNEY: That’s not what they say, Peter. Again, let me just -- before you get to the question -- because we get this again and again -- 40 percent is the percentage of young adults -- if you look at the pool of uninsured Americans, 40 percent of them are young adults. It is not the case that 40 percent -- that you have to have 40 percent young adults in order for the insurance markets to work. In fact, insurance companies, issuer CEOs have stated quite the opposite.
Q In fact, one that we spoke to today said the number is closer to 38 percent. So we can debate what the number is. But let me just ask more broadly then. The question is, are you confident that this enrollment period will get better than 30 percent?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that when we have demographic information we’ll certainly provide it to you. We are very comfortable that we are seeing and will see in the pool of individuals who have signed up through the marketplaces, both the federal and the state marketplaces, the kind of breakdown that we need demographically for the marketplaces to function effectively.
And let me quote on the record some folks -- WellPoint CEO: “We are seeing our average age come down every week, so it’s clear that younger people are starting to come into the pool,” says the Chief Financial Officer of WellPoint. “What isn’t clear, though, is did it come down enough.” WellPoint has said, “The demographic of its signups have generally matched its projections. I’m very optimistic as to where we are,” WellPoint executive, Ken Goulet, recently told investors.
BlueCross BlueShield of Rhode Island, Highmark Inc., Florida Blue, Medical Mutual of Ohio. “Medical Mutual of Ohio said its enrollment through the health law marketplace has gotten younger each week, and its average age is now a decade below where it was when enrollment kicked off in October.”
So, again, we’re confident that we’re going to be where we need to be.
And another factor that I think is worth noting is the off-marketplace enrollment. In addition to enrollment in the marketplace, people are enrolling in ACA-compliant plans outside the marketplace. And what we have seen is that off-marketplace enrollment is something that is an important fact to keep in mind when thinking about the risk pool, since, when setting rates, issuers are required to consider the enrollment mix across all of their ACA-compliant policies, whether on or off the marketplace.
And what we’ve seen anecdotally is, for example, from Washington State, there were 2.2 times as many people in ACA-compliant off-marketplace plans as in on-marketplace plans as of the end of January 2014. A few insurers have reported between 25 and 40 percent of their enrollees choosing off-market plans. And we’ve seen young people disproportionately, or in higher percentages, get insurance and sign up for insurance through these off-market plans.
Q Obviously, the success matters on a state-by-state basis and how it will affect premiums going forward. So are you confident that premiums next year will not go up substantially?
MR. CARNEY: This is a great question because, again, as critics search for reasons to repeal the Affordable Care Act -- and now my favorite is the accusation that the books are cooked, which is you know we’re doing well when we get back to kind of polls being wrong, as we saw in late 2012, right, that the numbers couldn’t possibly be real. But I’ll tell you they’re real and people are signing up.
Here’s the answer to your question, and it’s in the law. The law anticipated that, especially in the first year, when many people who had been shut out of the insurance market may be getting coverage for the first time, the overall pool could be sicker than the overall population. That’s why the law put in place ways to prevent large price shifts from year to year. So there are what we call the three Rs -- the reinsurance program, the risk corridors program, and the risk adjustment program -- which collectively ensure that there are not significant jumps in premiums caused by the nature of the pool.
So even if it were the case that the population of those who have signed up on the marketplace were not ideal when it comes to the health of that population vis-à-vis the health of the broader population, there are provisions in place in the law that prevent that from overly negatively impacting prices and premiums.
Q Of course for those who don’t sign up the penalty goes up substantially. This year, $95 or 1 percent; two years from now, in 2016, it’s I believe $695 per adult who doesn’t sign up or doesn’t have coverage, or 2.5 percent, I guess, whichever is higher. So there’s certainly other elements outside of what you just stated that do go up dramatically over the course of time, correct? In terms of the penalty.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have the data that you just cited to confirm. What I can tell you is people need to sign up for health insurance and they have a responsibility to do that. And there is opportunity to get quality, affordable health insurance -- in many cases, for less than 100 bucks per month. And today is the deadline for doing that in this open enrollment period for most people and there won’t be another opportunity until November.
So what we’re seeing, and what we’ve seen over the last weeks, is a significant surge in signups. And I think it reflects the appetite for affordable, quality health insurance, and reflects the fact that all the effort that was expended over these past several months to ensure that the systems were working so we could meet demand have, in fact, been working.
Q Finally, briefly, then I’ll yield to others -- there’s a startling new report that came out today from a U.N. group when it comes to climate change. I know the scientific evidence, certainly the White House would say, is there. The political will appears not be there. So what more can this administration do to make sure that Americans are protected from the impacts of climate change?
MR. CARNEY: It’s a great question, and I think that the report that you mentioned is a fact-based reminder of how serious this problem is and this challenge is for the United States and for every country in the world. And what I can tell you is the President is aggressively addressing these challenges, using every tool available to him, and that includes the fuel-efficiency standards that he’s put in place and the new fuel-efficiency standards that he’s announced. It includes other elements of his Climate Action Plan that he spoke about not that long ago.
Q What are the obstacles, then, to these things? We know what he’s proposing. What are the obstacles that exist right now that are stopping things from happening?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t know that --
Q -- further action from happening.
MR. CARNEY: Well, if you’re talking about legislative action, there’s certainly -- there have been, as we saw in the first term, obstacles to legislative action. But what the President has demonstrated is an ability, when it comes to controlling CO2 emissions and ensuring that we’re reducing our emissions, that there are means by which we as a nation can move forward and making progress.
The significant increase in production of natural gas in this country has contributed in large measure -- or in significant measure to a reduction in CO2 emissions because natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels. And that’s part of creating a situation where we have what we call with natural gas, sort of a bridge fuel that allows us, as we develop more renewables, to still, even as we use fossil fuels significantly, to reduce our CO2 emissions.
So the President is very aggressive in his approach on this, and has made clear I think repeatedly that this is an area where he will not wait for Congress, that he’ll use the authority that he has, both through executive action and through his convening power, to make progress on behalf of the country and the world.
Q Jay, you said Friday you were at 6 million. Do you think you guys will close in on 7 million?
MR. CARNEY: I would not be the one to make a guess except to say that we’ll be significantly above 6 million. And while I think some of the reporting has made it sound like 6 million is somehow falling short, I think that if anybody in this room, if I had stood up before you in November and told you that we would be above 6 million on March 31st, you would have laughed me out of the room, and probably had reason to do so. We were in a bad place in October and November. And it speaks to the determination of the President and his team to get it right that we are where we are -- where we’re seeing, as I showed you earlier, lines of people signing up for quality, affordable health insurance; we’re seeing remarkable volumes at the call centers and online. And we’re going to have a very strong number when this period ends.
Q How many of the 6 million that signed up by Friday -- how many of those who have signed up have actually paid?
MR. CARNEY: We don’t have those figures. When we do, we’ll get them to you. As you know -- and I think it’s very important and I look forward to everybody making this clear in their reports -- we are talking about private insurance. This is not a government program. The contract that you sign if you get health insurance through healthcare.gov or through a state marketplace is a private contract between you and an insurance company.
What you have seen from what insurers have said has been positive about the percentage of people who have both signed up and have paid their premiums. Obviously, for a lot of folks in this surge period, they’ve just signed up so they’re -- even the people who -- the vast majority of the people who will pay and pay on time haven’t paid yet because they just signed up.
So we don’t have any concrete numbers yet. Those numbers will, of course, principally come from the issuers themselves. But we believe, again, that we’re going to have significant numbers, both of people who have signed up and of people who have signed up and paid.
Q And how many of those who have signed up were previously uninsured versus had their old plans cancelled?
MR. CARNEY: Jon, what I can tell you is that we expect there to be a good mix of people who were previously uninsured who now have insurance. Certainly, there’s a significant number who now have qualified for Medicaid in those states that expanded Medicaid who will have insurance who didn’t have it before.
In some cases, it’s hard to measure this because you’re trying to -- it’s kind of counterfactual because every year prior to ACA, people lost insurance. And if there had been no Affordable Care Act that cycle and process would have happened just as it had in any previous year. What would be different is, absent the Affordable Care Act, they wouldn’t have the options available to them now. So it’s a tough number to measure. But as we get more data, we’re going to provide the data that we get.
What we know is that there are going to be more people in this country, in the millions, who have insurance, than would have had it before, and they will have security that they have not had before, they will have protections that did not exist before. And it will be very hard for Republicans and other critics to make the argument that a better world would be a world in which all those millions of Americans didn’t have health insurance; didn’t have protections against being denied coverage because they have a preexisting condition; didn’t have the ability to keep their kids -- their adult children on their insurance policies until age 26; didn’t have the discounts that seniors get through the Affordable Care Act and all the preventive care measures through the Affordable Care Act.
That’s a tough argument I would think to make except when you’re preaching to a choir that’s opposed to ACA regardless of what you say about the benefits.
Q And just one more. You mentioned people that don’t believe polls and --
MR. CARNEY: I was just struck by the senator, the Republican senator today who, confronted with numbers that I’m sure he said would never come to pass, just decided they weren’t real. If we were cooking the books, don’t you think we would have cooked them in October or November? We could have saved ourselves a lot of pain.
Q So let me throw out a number to you that our friends at the Associated Press, a poll that came out Friday that showed support for the Affordable Care Act at an all-time low: only 26 percent saying they support the Affordable Care Act. So if everything is as wonderful as you’ve kind of portrayed it, why is it that support, public support for Obamacare is still so low?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, that poll, as you know, changed dramatically; its methodology went from a phone-based poll to an online-based poll. What I would point you to is that it is an outlier. No other poll shows both support and opposition dropping, in addition to one-third of respondents saying they don’t know enough to register an opinion four years after the law was passed. Even in the AP poll, only 13 percent think the ACA will be repealed.
If you look at the Kaiser poll, the gold standard in public polling on this issue, that came out last week as well, support for the ACA has recovered to pre-rollout levels. And while we still have much more work to do, that’s positive progress.
In the Kaiser poll, a record 59 percent want to keep the ACA in place. And after months of rooting for failure and millions of dollars being spent in false negative ads including -- as I think we’ve all seen through the good work of some reporters -- including sending up people who supposedly are victims and turn out to have stories that don’t pan out -- only 29 percent support the Republican position of repeal. And that’s in the Kaiser poll, which I think everybody recognizes as the gold standard when it comes to polling on this issue.
So, look, polling aside, we’re achieving something today that I know has our critics gnashing their teeth. I know it leaves them with the need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to other means of trying to attack a law that is providing opportunity and security to millions of Americans.
Far better I think would be for them to acknowledge that the law is here to stay, that millions of Americans are going to get insurance because of it, and the security that comes with health insurance because of it, and to focus on working together in Washington towards making progress on creating even more economic opportunity for the American people; to expanding the middle class; to ensuring that if you work in this country full-time, you take responsibility for yourself and your family, you don’t live in poverty, you get at least a living wage out of the minimum wage.
These are things where we could work together on instead of -- I saw some senator saying that we should be having a hearing every other day on the Affordable Care Act. Well, it feels like we have. And maybe the days that there weren’t hearings they were voting to repeal it. But that seems to be an exercise in both futility and an exercise that reflects a political desire to deny millions of Americans benefits that they so clearly want.
Q I just have three quick questions. You quoted saying that the average age of people signing up now is 10 years younger than it was. What is that age now, would you say?
MR. CARNEY: Did I quote that? I’m not sure I did, but the --
Q You said one of the carriers said --
MR. CARNEY: This was -- one of the issuers, the carrier saying that --
Q Do you know what that age is?
MR. CARNEY: Let me see if I can tell you at least the carrier who said that.
Q You quoted WellPoint.
MR. CARNEY: Was it the WellPoint quote? Yes. No, it was Medical Mutual of Ohio. This is a Wall Street Journal article from a few days ago, said that Medical Mutual of Ohio said its enrollment through the health law marketplace has gotten younger each week, and its average age is now a decade below where it was when enrollment kicked off in October. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island said its fastest-rising segment in March has been people age 22 to 40.
And again, I think that reflects what we had been saying was almost certainly going to be the case, which is there would be a surge at the end, as there was in December, because people respond to deadlines, and that young people in particular -- young and healthy people in particular would wait the longest before signing up because that’s kind of what young people do.
Q And then the numbers that we’re seeing from New York and Kentucky, does the administration think that that is pretty representative of the country? Something between 60 and 70 percent have not been insured before --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I wouldn't want to make estimates of what the percentages look like. There’s going to be a lot of data analysis done. And on the issue of what the breakdown of the population who’ve been enrolled through the marketplace or signed up for ACA-compliant plans that are off the marketplace, what percentage of those folks were uninsured in the past is going to be something that will have to be worked through with insurance companies because this is a private contract between insurers and individuals.
And it's also something that's kind of difficult to pin down precisely because you had a circumstance in this country -- it was part of the reason why we needed health insurance reform -- where especially in the individual market, people would pretty randomly lose their insurance -- it was one of the problems that needed to be addressed -- and prior to the ACA would not have had the kind of alternatives and options that they now have.
So some percentage of people who had insurance last year but lost their plan because it was not ACA-compliant and who now have insurance or signed up for insurance through the ACA would have been in a circumstance in a non-ACA environment where they did not have insurance this year but now they do.
Q And I think that some of the people today -- I mean, this latest problem with the website this afternoon was actually not letting people sign up for the first time, not letting them get in. So if there’s 100,000 people on the website at any given time, doesn’t that tell you that there might be a large number of people not being able to sign up for the deadline? And what should those people do?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, this is a temporary problem that the tech teams are working on fixing it, as they have in the past. Secondly, those 100,000 people, which represents a huge number online at the same time enrolling, will be able to finish the process. And everyone who faces the problem that you cited is now in a circumstance where if they’re not able to complete enrollment by midnight tonight they will have time to ensure that they complete it, which is the same process that we initiated in December prior to that deadline.
So that's why, when I started out today, I began by saying that people ought to go to healthcare.gov; they ought to make a call to the call-in center; they ought to start the process of enrolling because today is the deadline. And if they start they’ll be able to finish. And if there’s so much volume or if
-- just like when you vote on election day, if you're in line and the polls close, you get to vote. And certainly we believe that's the correct approach when you're voting and it certainly should be the correct approach when you’re enrolling in insurance.
Q I'm just wondering, despite the success that you’ve had signing up people, where you think the ACA stands as a political issue? You keep on talking about Republicans wanting to repeal it, but David Jolly, the only test case that we have recently, all his ads say that he wanted to replace it, not repeal it. So I'm wondering if you still think the debate is about repeal versus the law is here to stay, or it's changing, our attitudes about the ACA? Where do you think it stands now politically?
MR. CARNEY: I'll leave that kind of analysis to the pundits. But I would say that as the year progresses and as Republicans point to their record in Congress and what they’ve done, which is offer no alternative, but vote again and again and again to take these benefits away, Democrats or supporters of the Affordable Care Act will have a strong argument to make that most Americans, based on the Kaiser poll, believe it ought to stay, that the law ought to stay in place and be improved, but not repealed. Only 29 percent believe in that repeal argument.
I mean, in the race that you cited, I think there’s all sorts of evidence about what role the ACA played in that, and the fact is a Democratic candidate came very close in a district that had been held by Republicans for -- what -- 60 years or something --
Q -- he didn’t run on repealing it.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'm not sure -- if you're telling me that Republicans, having done nothing but try to repeal it, are going to run now saying they didn’t really mean it, I'm not sure how many people are going to buy that. I mean, you're the -- you go on TV and talk about this; you tell me what you believe.
April. Then Major.
Q So, Jay, now that you’ve been given a piece of paper, can you quantify the number -- (laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: It says, “Watch out for April, she always asks really hard questions.” (Laughter.) Go ahead.
Q And she always breaks the numbers that the White House denies. Hmm. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: We don’t deny. We just don’t --
Q Oh, it was denied. It was denied. When I said 6 million Wednesday, it was denied by the White House.
MR. CARNEY: I wasn’t here. (Laughter.)
Q Anyway, at this point, can you quantify a number? You keep talking about it’s over the 6 million mark and you’re talking about the successes and the achievement that will have your critics gnashing their teeth. Can you quantify the last number that you received?
MR. CARNEY: It’s whatever we put out, which was over 6 million. I mean, these --
Q Over 6 million could be 6.3, it could be 6.8, it could be 6.99999.
MR. CARNEY: It’s only a little after 2:00 p.m., there’s hours to go. And I can report to you that the website is fixed, the account creation issues have been fixed and people are creating accounts, moving through the site. Now, I just got that through my earpiece. (Laughter.)
So, again, problems arise; problems get fixed. All this has been about from the beginning was not whether -- who won the political battle of the day, but whether or not the website, which was only a means to an end which was providing health insurance, functioned effectively for the vast majority of Americans who wanted it to work. And so when there are problems, we fix them. And we fixed this one.
Q So what about the millions of Americans who still have yet to sign up, the ones who don’t want to sign up -- what happens to them? Are you going to go out and make another push at the end of the year when the enrollment starts back up again for them?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t want to preview plans. Obviously, this is -- if you look at projections by CBO and others about the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the numbers of Americans who are insured versus the numbers who aren’t, this is not just a one-year proposition. Those numbers will increase significantly over the course of several years. And I’m sure this effort will be ongoing when it comes to making sure that folks out there get the information they need so that they can get the coverage that gives them security.
So I don’t want to start talking about folks who will have to wait until November to enroll when they still have the opportunity today to enroll. But certainly there will be an effort continually, because the ACA is here to stay, to ensure that millions of Americans know what their options are; know that they have access to quality, affordable health insurance; know that as more and more states take advantage of the provision in the ACA to expand Medicaid, as we have seen gradually over the course of this year, that they’ll have options that they didn’t have before, and for a lot of folks, they’ll have insurance that they didn’t have before.
Q And lastly, as you’re taking this victory lap of sorts, the President two weeks ago talked to the workers, the fixers at QSSI and offered them beer at the White House. So when is that scheduled here at the White House for those workers?
MR. CARNEY: I have no scheduling announcements to make, but I hope I get invited to that party.
Q I’ll get to some of the regular topics we’ve had this afternoon, but I want to ask you something about Secret Service. Julia Pierson, the director, is going up to the Hill tomorrow to meet with Homeland Security. As you know, for those of us traveling on the trip last week, there was another embarrassment to the Secret Service. And I wonder if the President is taking stock again of where that agency is. Is he satisfied with the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy? Is he upset, or to the degree he’s upset, about the fact that it wasn’t followed by the Secret Service, and by extension, at least indirectly, the President had to deal with another embarrassing episode publicly disclosed while he was traveling last week?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me run through a few things. First of all, for details on the incident I would refer you to the Secret Service. But I can tell you that the President expects that anyone traveling on behalf of the United States must observe only the highest standards. And we fully support, the President fully supports Director Pierson’s tougher new guidelines and the agency’s efforts to ensure that all personnel abide by them.
As an agency, the Secret Service has implemented these new stricter guidelines -- higher-level supervisors on trips, ethics training, briefings before departure and after arrival on trips. So the President fully supports that new program instituted by the new director.
I’d also like to make clear that the President has faith in and enormously appreciates the remarkable work that the Secret Service does, much of it unseen by you here and even some of us on the inside. They perform an important duty on behalf of our country in protecting the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, and others, and they do an exemplary job.
So, obviously, when it comes to occasions when someone working for that agency fails to meet the high standards that are set and that the director has imposed, appropriate action needs to be taken, and the President supports that effort. But any discussion here, at least from our perspective, has to include the high regard that the President has for the men and women of the Secret Service.
Q Does the President find it particularly frustrating that when, on a trip where the agents know Julia Pierson is going to be on Air Force One, traveling throughout, even then they don’t get the memo, to put it bluntly?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think this is about the President. This is something that is handled at the Secret Service, appropriately, and that was handled in accordance with the new standards that Director Pierson put in place. The President had a very productive trip and --
Q Did they have a chance to discuss this while they were traveling together?
MR. CARNEY: Director Pierson was certainly on the trip and I saw her on several occasions. I don’t know whether this was discussed between the director and the President. The President is certainly aware of the incident.
But, again, on this trip -- which was a complicated trip, four different countries, a lot of moving parts -- Secret Service did a great job. And every time they go out there, especially in a foreign environment like that, they’re on the line. And incidents like this notwithstanding, people only think about the Secret Service when something more serious happens. And the fact that they do their job so well and do it professionally has to be noted, I think.
Q On the trip, the President met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea over the weekend. As I’m sure you know, there were some exercises on both sides of the border, and I wonder if the White House believes all these various shots fired into the water were entirely harmless or indicative of something that’s of greater concern?
MR. CARNEY: Well, North Korea’s actions are dangerous and they’re provocative. And the DPRK’s continued threats and provocations aggravate tensions and further North Korea’s isolation.
We remain steadfast in our commitment to the defense of our allies and we remain in close coordination with both the Republic of Korea and Japan. We saw the DPRK’s March 30 statement, and any nuclear tests or any ballistic missile launches would be significant violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, including resolutions 1718 and 1874. So we call again upon the DPRK to comply with its international obligations and to refrain from actions that threaten regional peace and security.
Q On Ukraine, a couple of things I want to try to see if you can put in context for us. The President got a call from Vladimir Putin; then the conversation with Kerry and Lavrov; there are reports of troops pulling back. Does this feel like, and does the White House believe these things collectively suggest a lessening of the tensions, and prospects for a better outcome than, say, a week ago?
MR. CARNEY: The most significant piece of your question is the report that at least some Russian troops may be drawing down from their positions on the border. Again, we haven’t confirmed that that has taken place, but if it were to be true, that would be a positive sign. But it is the beginning of what we would need to see when it comes to --
Q Have any suggestions been made by the Russians that that’s something that might be happening?
MR. CARNEY: I would just point you to the report. What I can tell you is it’s certainly in keeping with what we have -- we and our partners and allies have insisted needs to happen.
But we’re not -- we remain very concerned about the situation there. We remain concerned about the implications of that number of troops on the border and concerned about Russian intentions. So that is why Secretary Kerry met with Foreign Minister Lavrov. That is why they have promised -- or decided that they would meet again, although a date has not been scheduled.
And we have made clear in the back-and-forth with the Russians that we’re serious about the proposal that we have put forward, in consultation with the Ukrainian government, and we’re absolutely serious that any discussions and negotiations about Ukraine cannot be held over the head of the Ukrainian people or the Ukrainian government. They have to be the key player in any of those negotiations.
Now, direct negotiations between the government of Russia and the government of Ukraine need to take place, but they can, as necessary, involve international mediation and participation. But Russia needs to engage in a dialogue with the government of Ukraine.
Q Lastly, many people who have stood at that podium representing various administrations have been asked about Jonathan Pollard, and it has been the practice of previous administrations to be very emphatic that Jonathan Pollard would not and should not be considered a bargaining chip in any other underlying relationships or negotiations with the Israelis. Can you say, unequivocally, that that is still the case and that any suggestion otherwise misreads what’s going on either with the Palestinian prisoner release or the framework itself?
MR. CARNEY: Major, what I’ll say is that I have nothing new about Jonathan Pollard that I haven’t said in the past, which is that he was convicted of espionage and he is serving his sentence. And I have nothing to add to that.
When it comes to the Middle East peace process and the work being done with both parties to try to move that process forward, there’s a lot of complicated moving parts. I was asked earlier about the issue of --
Q Is Pollard one of them?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into that. The only thing I’ll say about Pollard is what we have always said, which is that he was convicted of espionage and he is serving his sentence.
I was asked earlier about the issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners another tranche of Palestinian prisoners, and my response to that is, obviously, that’s one of the things that has been discussed, and it’s a complicated issue and it’s being worked on by the parties.
Q Thanks, Jay. Afghanistan is headed for elections over this weekend. Many consider this as a milestone for Afghanistan. What are the President’s thoughts on it, and is the White House -- is the White House confident that this will a free and fair election?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it is a milestone. And we expect millions of Afghans to go to the polls this Saturday, April 5, to vote for their next president. These are critical elections and the United States welcomes the democratic process that is underway in Afghanistan.
I want to stress that this election process is Afghan-owned. The Afghan security forces are in the lead nationwide. The leaders and staff of the electoral institutions are all Afghan. The campaign period over the past two months was full of open and responsible debate among the candidates, and it will be up to the Afghan people to choose the direction of their country.
We are hopeful that the elections will be peaceful and inclusive, and broadly acceptable to the Afghan people. It goes without saying, but a stable and acceptable political transition is critical to sustaining international support for Afghanistan. It’s often said that when you have new democracies that it’s not the first election or even the case when the second election reelects the incumbent, but the election that brings about a transition that is most important when it comes to embedding democratic institutions in a society and a country.
So this is an important milestone, and we are watching it very closely.
Q Let me ask you about your favorite criticism, Senator Barrasso suggesting that the books are being cooked.
MR. CARNEY: Is that getting a lot of play, Wendell? (Laughter.)
Q Well, why should he not be suspicious when you appear to be very specific about things like the number of people who have signed up, but not specific as much about the breakdown of young and old and whether or not this is meeting the needs of the Affordable Care Act in terms of premiums?
MR. CARNEY: Look, Wendell, I’ll say a couple of things, in part repeating myself. And one is that we’ve provided a significant amount of data about the signups, and we’ve provided that information when it has not been good and when it has been good. And we’ve provided information about the demographic breakdown when it’s become available. It is not instantaneously available.
What I take away from that straw-grasping is that it’s an acknowledgement, if you will, that we have, despite all the obstacles that we created for ourselves and the obstacles we put in front of the American people early in this process, achieved something significant in meeting and exceeding the 6 million enrollee threshold.
But, look, this is -- somebody mentioned it before -- this is not a victory lap. All this is about is providing benefits to the American people. It’s really not about the midterm cycle or what a critic in the Senate or the House says versus what we say. It’s about delivering on a promise that the Affordable Care Act embodies and that the President made and that many Presidents prior to him tried to make. Remember, this was a century-long fight, involving Presidents of both parties. And in the case of Presidents of both parties, it was always a fight about expanding this important security to millions of Americans, which is the security you get from having health insurance.
And so this is not -- it’s not the end; it is the end of the first open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act. And there will be many more for years and years to come.
Q What about Senator Graham’s contention that Congress ought to be having hearings every other --
MR. CARNEY: Yes, I mentioned that.
Q -- every other day? Is it your contention that nothing that the House has done in terms of hearings has improved the Affordable Care Act at all?
MR. CARNEY: Is it your contention that it has? (Laughter.) I have nothing -- look, I don’t think that -- and this goes to I think what Mara was saying -- that any leader in the Republican Party would contest that their position is repeal; full repeal. The Speaker of the House says that, Majority Leader says that, everybody says that. So even as they’ve sort of tried to dress up full repeal behind the bill that purports just to make a small change, but in fact when it comes to, say, the individual mandate, effectively constitutes repeal, that anybody buys that their position is anything but full repeal, because they’ve said it again and again and again. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but “pulled up by the roots” was something that one of them said recently.
So we just obviously have a fundamental disagreement about that. We think that the millions of Americans who now have health insurance are going to question whether or not the wise course of action is to take it away from them and give them nothing else in return; and to give them only the insecurity that comes with not having quality, affordable health insurance, or of being subjected to the status quo ante, which was one in which the insurance industry dictated to individuals whether or not they would get coverage and whether or not their conditions would be covered.
Q Jay, on the mudslide?
MR. CARNEY: Mudslide.
Q Thank you. On the tragic mudslide, is there any anger here that -- there was a report made 15 years ago, a very specific report, that people should not live there, it’s a dangerous area, and it was still open for development. Does the President have any thoughts about people choosing to live in very dangerous areas?
MR. CARNEY: Our focus, Connie, on this tragic situation is on the families of those who have lost a loved one or who have a loved one who remains missing. The administration continues to work in support of Washington State around the clock, and the President continues to be briefed and updated on the situation.
As you know, the President directed his team to stay in close touch with our federal partners, as well as the state and local officials leading the response. And on March 24th, he declared an emergency in the State of Washington and offered federal aid to supplement state and local efforts. So that’s what we’re focused on. I know that’s what he has instructed his team to focus on.
Q Is the President going out there in person?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any presidential scheduling updates.
Q Thanks. Back to Russia for a moment. Does Russia have to surrender Crimea in order to get sanctions lifted?
MR. CARNEY: There have been sanctions imposed on Russian individuals, or individuals that have been designated because of the role they played in the action that Russia took in Crimea -- the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. And we’ve made clear that there would be consequences for those actions, and there have been and there may yet be more. There will be potentially more and more serious consequences imposed by the United States and our partners should Russia engage in further acts that violate Ukraine’s integrity -- territorial integrity and sovereignty.
So our position is clear: Russia is illegally occupying Crimea. And we will never recognize -- we do not recognize and won’t recognize, and our partners and allies have made clear they feel the same, that illegal occupation. It was done in violation of the U.N. Charter, in violation of Russia’s own commitments with Ukraine, the sovereign state of Ukraine. And that remains true today and it will remain true in the future.
But when it comes to -- there have already been costs imposed on Russia for that, and the authorities provided in the executive orders allow for more action to be taken as a result or consequence of the occupation of Crimea.
Q Was that a yes? To get them lifted they have to release Crimea? That was the question.
MR. CARNEY: The costs imposed for the occupation of Crimea are not going to be changed if they [don’t] occupy Crimea. The sanctions that have been foreshadowed, potentially, the sectoral economic sanctions and the other actions that are allowed under the second executive order that the President signed are ones that we would impose, as our European partners also said they would, should Russia engage in further violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Q I hear you saying that the annexation can stand.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry?
Q The annexation can stand.
MR. CARNEY: No, I didn’t say that. I said the opposite. And stand in what way? We will not recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. We do not and we will not, and our European partners and allies and others have made clear. I would point you to the overwhelming vote in the United Nations General Assembly, I would point you to the 13-to-1 vote in the United Nations Security Council to demonstrate that this is not a sentiment held by the United States alone.
Q Let me try once more. What needs to happen for the sanctions to be lifted?
MR. CARNEY: The ones that have been imposed as a consequence of the occupation of Crimea? Russia needs to draw its forces down in Crimea back to their levels, and engage in dialogue with the Ukrainian government about its concerns with regard to Crimea.
Q So it has to be un-annexed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we don’t recognize -- it’s not been annexed in terms of the international community’s views. It’s an illegal occupation. So any dialogue or negotiations about Crimea’s status, about the status of this region of Ukraine, would have to involve discussions with the government of Ukraine.
Q Jay, in the Hawaii Senate Democratic primary, the President has put his thumb on the scale. And I have two questions. Why did he decide to endorse Brian Schatz? And what will be his template to endorse Democratic candidates?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can tell you that Senator Schatz and President Obama worked on issues important to Hawaii and Senator Schatz is committed to fighting for the middle-class families of Hawaii, and the President believes it is important for him to return to the Senate.
In terms of endorsements and the way these processes work, I would refer you to the DNC. But the President feels that Senator Schatz has done a good job fighting for the families of Hawaii and supports his reelection.
Q Is it at all possible that the lessening of the troops on the border of Ukraine by the Russians, can that be taken at all as a sign of good faith and worth continuing negotiating in that area?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jon-Christopher, we’ve seen the reports and if they are true and if, more importantly, they represent further withdrawals that would be a positive sign, because it is certainly something that we have explicitly called for. But it would only be -- even this report would only be the beginning of what needs to happen when it comes to the disposition of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine, and is only one piece of what we have called for when it comes to the need to deescalate the situation and to resolve it diplomatically.
So it’s certainly a fact that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have met and have talked about a diplomatic solution. And the United States and our partners have presented a proposal and we’ve been in dialogue with the Russian government about that. But we’re obviously not there yet. And we remain very concerned about both the intentions of Russia when it comes to all those troops on the border. We fully oppose and consider illegal the occupation of Crimea. And we strongly support, as evidenced by our actions, the government of Ukraine and the international efforts to assist the government of Ukraine economically as it deals with this trying situation, and as they move forward towards elections at the end of May.
Thanks very much, everybody.
2:13 P.M. EDT
May 13, 2016
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