Despite lack of agreement in Congress, Trump forges on in unraveling Obamacare

2017-10-12 | The Columbus Dispatch

Oct. 12--WASHINGTON -- With Congress unable to repeal Obamacare, President Donald Trump is taking a series of steps aimed at unraveling the 2010 law that extended health-care coverage to 20 million Americans.

The latest move came Thursday, when Trump signed an executive order loosening restrictions on association health plans -- plans that allow small-employer groups and individuals to band together to buy health insurance.

Trump's order directs the secretary of Labor to consider the expansion of such plans, which could potentially allow U.S. employers to form insurance groups across state lines.

The president also directed his administration to consider expanding access to low-cost short-term duration insurance, which is not subject to Obamacare requirements. **** Trump's administration argues that doing so would create far cheaper options for those seeking insurance.

Finally, the order directs Trump's cabinet to consider expanding access to Health Reimbursement Arrangements -- employer-funded accounts reimbursing employees for health-care expenses.

"With these actions, we are moving toward lower costs and more options in the health-care market and taking crucial steps towards saving the American people from the nightmare of Obamacare," Trump said in a White House ceremony where he was flanked by lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence. He said his actions will cost the United States government "virtually nothing, and people will have great, great health care."

To supporters, Trump's order opens up new insurance alternatives at potentially lower prices, helping to follow through on a campaign promise to undo Obamacare that Republicans have made since the law was passed.

To detractors, the move was repeatedly described with one word: Sabotage.

"Instead of employing backdoor tactics meant to undermine important health-care protections, President Trump should come to the table with members of both parties to pursue meaningful health-care reform that benefits Ohioans," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D -- Ohio. He argued that the expanded association plans would limit access to such benefits as maternity services and emergency care and destabilize the Obamacare market by flooding the insurance market with skimpier plans.

"If the system deteriorates, make no mistake about it, the blame will fall squarely on the president's back," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Brown and others -- including Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- had argued for a bipartisan solution to shoring up the Obamacare markets. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, had engaged in talks aimed at shoring up the markets.

"Obamacare added a tangled mess of bureaucracy, mandates and regulations to our health-care system," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, adding that those on the Obamacare exchanges have been paying more for lower quality care. "The president is taking a necessary step by instructing his administration to do what they can under current law to restore the free market, lower costs and improve access to quality care."

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, was especially critical.

"Since he first announced his campaign for the presidency, I've heard President Trump falsely claim dozens of times that the Affordable Care Act was collapsing. Today, I am in disbelief that the President would so blatantly sabotage America's healthcare system in order to make that falsehood a reality. His executive order will create a loophole that would allow insurers to sell watered-down insurance plans that do not cover essential health benefits like pregnancy coverage, mental healthcare, and cancer screenings. It dismantles coverage protections for people with pre-existing conditions and further disadvantages the sick and middle class."

While Democrats decried Trump's action, Republicans such as Rep. Jim Jordan, R -- Urbana, said Trump was "doing what voters sent him here to do."

"Today's executive order on health care will start to give every day Americans the relief they need from soaring premiums," he said, while calling on Congress to fully repeal the 2010 law.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, said Trump's action were part of a plan to loosen Obamacare regulations.

"This has long been part of our strategy to try and help Americans get access to more affordable health care, to bring more choice and competition into the marketplace and lower premiums, so it's in perfect keeping with what we've been planning all along," he said.

Trump's executive order follows complaints that his administration has drastically cut back on programs aimed at educating people about their health care options ahead of the Obamacare open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 1 and ends Dec. 15.

On Thursday, Ohio's Democratic House delegation -- Reps. Joyce Beatty, D -- Jefferson Township, Tim Ryan, D -- Niles, Marcia Fudge, D -- Cleveland and Marcy Kaptur, D -- Toledo -- sent a letter to Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma complaining about cuts in services and outreach programs aimed at enrolling citizens in health care plans.

Among their complaints: The Trump administration has cut the Affordable Care Act "Navigator" program, which pairs those signing up for health coverage with a professional trained to assist them. The budget for that program was reduced by 71 percent, and the lawmakers say that the cuts forced the Ohio Association of Foodbanks to leave the program, leaving the state with no navigators. They're also upset that the advertising budget informing Ohioans that it's time to enroll has been virtually eliminated.

"Individuals will now be without the help they need to enroll in health care plans even though every American is required to have health insurance under current law and face tax consequences if they fail to obtain coverage," the group wrote.

Michael Dulman contributed to this report.

jwehrman@dispatch.com

@jessicawehrman

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