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DC fires official who questioned Obama's health care change

WASHINGTON – A day after he questioned President Barack Obama's decision to unwind a major tenet of the health care law and said the nation's capital might not go along, District of Columbia insurance commissioner William White was fired.

White was called into a meeting Friday afternoon with a deputy of Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, and told that the mayor "wants to go in a different direction," White told The Washington Post on Saturday.

White said the mayoral deputy never said that he was being asked to leave because of his Thursday statement on health care. But he said the timing was hard to ignore. Roughly 24 hours later, White said, he was "basically being told, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"

White was one of the first insurance commissioners in the nation last week to push back against Obama's attempt to smooth over part of the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act: millions of unexpected cancellations of insurance plans.

In persuading Congress to vote for the health care overhaul, Obama promised that Americans who liked their insurance plans would be able to keep them. When that turned out to not be the case, Obama apologized last week. And to stem growing bipartisan dissent, he announced Thursday that plans slated to be canceled next year to comply with the legislation could be extended for one year.

The president's plan rattled the insurance industry, which had set prices for next year based on many of its products changing to comply with the health care law. Allowing some plans to continue beyond Jan. 1 could also run afoul of provisions in laws passed by dozens of states and the District of Columbia to implement the Affordable Care Act.

In a statement issued Thursday, White hinted strongly that he opposed the idea.

"The action today undercuts the purpose of the exchanges, including the District's DC Health Link, by creating exceptions that make it more difficult for them to operate," the statement said.

He also pointed to a statement issued by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that said the Obama order "threatens to undermine the new market, and may lead to higher premiums and market disruptions in 2014 and beyond."

"We concur with that assessment," White said Thursday.

White's statement was removed from the department's website sometime before Friday morning. Asked about the removal Friday, spokesman Michael Flagg said the department's statement had changed. "Our statement now is that we're taking a close look at the implications of the president's announcement on the District's exchange and we will soon recommend a course of action after taking into consideration the positions of all the stakeholders," Flagg wrote in an email.

On Saturday, Flagg declined to say whether White was fired, saying the department doesn't comment on personnel issues.

A senior city official said White's initial statement was sent to the mayoral communications director, Pedro Ribeiro, only minutes before it was issued publicly. It was not sent to Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins, White's immediate supervisor, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about a personnel matter. A formal statement critical of the president should have been closely vetted and approved by the mayor's office, and White refused to acknowledge the misstep, the official said. White said Hoskins fired him Friday.

White said he thought he would have been derelict in his duties to not quickly make a statement on the president's announcement.

"Everyone was looking for responses from the regulators. One of my chief concerns is always consistency and clarity in the marketplace – you can't have something that big sitting out there without responding to it," he said.

White had served as Gray's commissioner for the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking since February 2011. Prior to last week, his most high-profile and controversial role had been as chief of the department that took control of Chartered Health Plan, the city's largest manager of health care for low-income residents, amid questions about "irregularities" in its finances.

Chartered was owned by businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who has been implicated in funding a $650,000 "shadow campaign" to elect Gray. White oversaw the successful sale of the insurer's assets, and his department's handling of the transition has been viewed positively.

White said he had known since he took the job that he served at the pleasure of the mayor.

On the president's proposed health care fix, he said: "I wasn't saying I was against it, I also was saying I didn't know enough to fully support it - I want to be clear, and I think it is, I was not speaking for Mayor Gray."

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