Congress can’t keep kids covered as 2017 comes to a disappointing end


Congressional Republicans immediately followed their passage of a tax bill that will have a devastating impact on public health by voting for an irresponsible spending stopgap that needlessly jeopardizes the roughly nine million American children who rely on coverage from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). While regrettable, this sequence of events was a fitting conclusion to 2017 on Capitol Hill, where majority lawmakers showed a persistent and troubling desire to limit Americans’ access to health care.

While the stopgap bill passed by the House and Senate will fund CHIP through the end of March 2018, it continues to create reckless uncertainty as state officials who manage the program are forced to run it on a month-to-month basis. Despite the widespread bipartisan support the program has historically enjoyed, congressional leaders proved unable to reach an agreement on the usual five-year long-term spending approval that CHIP has received in the past.

Republicans also chose to punt to 2018 on health marketplace stabilization efforts that are even more urgent in the wake of the tax bill’s passage. While the proposals from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), as well as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) will not mitigate all the damage done by individual mandate repeal, they will help lessen the negative impact from President Trump’s unilateral and dangerous decision to end stabilization funding earlier this fall.

And though both measures would have an objectively positive impact on the health marketplace congressional Republicans seem intent on destroying, it remains unclear whether the measures – together or separately – could garner a majority of support in either chamber, particularly the House of Representatives where more conservative members enjoy increasing influence.

Despite these developments, almost nine million Americans reportedly signed up for coverage during this year’s Open Enrollment period that concluded on December 15, nearly matching last year’s total. This took place despite the administration’s efforts to limit enrollment, by cutting the sign-up period in half and slashing funding for promotional efforts to educate the public. The enrollment figures are a clear sign that Washington’s focus in 2018 must turn away from creating roadblocks to health care, and instead find new ways to help Americans get and stay covered.

Senate Attempts to Stabilize Healthcare with Bipartisan Agreement


Yesterday, Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) announced they had reached a short-term deal bipartisan healthcare legislation. This legislation would stabilize individual insurance markets and protect patients and families from premium spikes and uncertainty caused by the Trump Administration’s two decisions last week intended to destabilize the ACA marketplaces.

The deal negotiated by Alexander and Murray would fund payments to help lower costs for families, provide added flexibility to states, protect essential health benefits for patients, and restore investments for open enrollment outreach.

The bill would:

  • Restore Cost-Sharing Reduction payments and the certainty that is crucial to continued market stability and affordability for families. Insurers have raised rates by as much as 30% because of the uncertainty around CSR payments and continue to threaten exit from insurance markets.
  • Restore certainty to health care markets by ensuring CSRs will continue through 2017, 2018, and 2019.
  • Include steps to ensure 2018 enrollees receive the financial benefit of CSRs for the coming year.
  • Require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to increase funding for outreach and enrollment assistance activities for 2018 and 2019; this is a top priority for ANA with Open Enrollment beginning November 1.
  • Put in place extensive reporting requirements to make sure HHS is held accountable for implementing Open Enrollment in 2018 and 2019.

Most importantly, the bill would generally keep in place essential health benefits and protections for pre-existing conditions with the exception of consumers who qualify for catastrophic plans.

The legislation will need 60 votes to pass through the Senate and ultimately Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will determine if the bill goes to the floor for a vote. In addition, lawmakers will need to convince the President that this bill will benefit the consumer and not the insurers. To date, the President has responded with mixed reviews.

President’s Latest Attempt to Destabilize Healthcare


This morning, despite ongoing bipartisan efforts to stabilize the individual insurance market following the failure of Congress to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) allowing for the creation of new association health plan (AHP) options for small employers and individuals. AHPs currently exist and are used primarily by small businesses to purchase group health coverage, but are regulated under the provisions of the ACA in the same way as coverage purchased on the individual health insurance market. Today’s EO in effect treats AHPs as large group health insurance plans and allows coverage under AHPs to be sold across state lines.

Treating AHPs in this way exempts them from important provisions covered under the ACA. As a reminder, the ACA includes provisions on insurance plans sold on the individual market which:

  • Require plans to cover 10 Essential Health Benefits including reproductive and maternal health services and preventive services;
  • Forbid insurers from charging more to individuals due to pre-existing conditions;
  • Limit the amount insurance companies can charge to older individuals based on age.

The American Nurses Association opposes any action – legislative or executive – which would put at risk the ability of Americans to access and receive high quality healthcare. This is particularly true when it comes to the most vulnerable Americans. It has become increasingly clear that this administration is more concerned with scoring political points and reversing gains made in healthcare than it is about actually ensuring high quality healthcare coverage for all Americans.

As a result of this EO, AHPs would be permitted to offer coverage that does not include the 10 Essential Health Benefits required to be covered under insurance plans offered through the ACA exchanges. AHPs would also be allowed to charge different prices to consumers based on age and health – including charging more for individuals with any host of pre-existing conditions.

This EO allows AHPs to sell insurance coverage which offers fewer benefits at variable prices depending on an individual’s health. This would certainly be an attractive option for someone who is young, healthy, and does not anticipate needing to use a high volume of healthcare services. The flipside is that this would have a negative impact on older adults and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The cruel irony with this plan is that these individuals would likely be stuck with plans in the individual marketplace, as they would not be able to afford the coverage offered under AHPs – which would likely not provide coverage for necessary care.

Furthermore, these insurance plans are ripe for instances of fraud, abuse, and insolvency. The Government Accountability Office in 1992 issued a report which slammed similar small business insurance arrangements and noted that they left hundreds of thousands of enrollees with millions of dollars in unpaid claims and widely failed to meet state insurance laws and regulations. The GAO report found that some plans tried to duck under state insurance regulations entirely. This type of wild, wild west approach to insurance coverage does not offer the comprehensive level of coverage at a low price that the Trump administration claims. Based on the provisions of this EO, we also expect several lawsuits to challenge this based on the legality under current federal law and on the insurance across state lines aspect.

In essence, this latest gambit by the Trump administration is another attempt to undermine the system put in place by the ACA at the expense of some of the most vulnerable Americans. Combined with the administration’s move last week to weaken the ability of Americans to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services – particularly contraceptives – covered under the ACA, this represents a significant effort to endanger the healthcare of all Americans.

We urge Congress and the Administration to continue to work toward market stabilization and to strengthen the existing system – which has resulted in coverage for tens of millions more Americans since 2014 – and to put an end to these attempts to sabotage Americans’ healthcare for political gain. ANA is committed to working with Congress and the administration on legislation and policy which aligns with our four core principles of health system transformation. This Executive Order, however, represents a major step backward from achieving those principles.

(Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)