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Former Obama aide returns to get health care law back on track

Phil Schiliro (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Phil Schiliro (AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama is bringing a former top aide with deep ties to Congress back to the White House to help get his health care overhaul back on track after a bungled rollout.

Officials say Phil Schiliro, who as Obama’s top liaison to Capitol Hill helped push the Affordable Care Act through Congress, is taking on a short-term assignment to help coordinate policy surrounding the law.

He’ll work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, other agencies and members of Congress.

The Medicare agency oversees the federal website that uninsured people are supposed to use to buy government-subsidized health insurance. Starting next year, virtually all Americans will be required to have coverage or face fines. But a cascade of technical problems overwhelmed when it went live on Oct. 1, frustrating consumers and sending Obama’s poll ratings into a dive.

After weeks of repairs, the administration announced last week that the worst of the technical problems had been fixed and that the site was working reasonably well for most users. But it’s too really to say if the website has really turned a corner. It’s also quite likely that the White House will stumble into another crisis as officials try to implement a complex, politically polarizing law with broad effects on society.

Schiliro’s appointment is comparable to that of Jeffrey Zients, the management expert and former Obama administration official who returned in mid-October to oversee the rescue of the dysfunctional website. But where Zients is an organizational troubleshooter, Schiliro brings years of political connections and health care policy expertise to an insular White House. Prior to his first stint in the administration, he had been a longtime adviser to California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the co-authors of the health care law.

Schiliro left the White House about two years ago and moved to New Mexico, where he opened a business consulting for nonprofits.

In a statement provided by the White House, Schiliro said he wants to help because the law is important to Obama.

The health care law is the signature domestic achievement of Obama’s presidency, but it’s been challenged every step of the way by congressional Republicans and other opponents.

The website woes took the White House by surprise, rattling Obama’s own supporters and undermining their confidence in the administration’s basic competence. Then Obama sailed into another political storm: millions of people who buy insurance individually were getting cancellation notices because their policies did not measure up to the standards of the health care law. Amid growing criticism, the president apologized and proposed a workaround involving temporary extensions of current policies.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers facing tough re-elections next year began wavering.

Word of Schiliro’s return also comes as the White House seems to have realized that the success of the health care overhaul can’t be taken for granted. The president himself has plunged into a renewed effort to promote the law.

“We moved to New Mexico to go in a new direction, but this is important to the president,” Schiliro said in the statement. “A law that guarantees coverage to millions of Americans, improves quality and saves hundreds of billions of dollars is worth fighting for. I hope to help with that effort.”

Schiliro will work with White House-based health care advisers, including Jeanne Lambrew and Chris Jennings.

The New York Times first reported on Schiliro’s return.


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