House approves plan to let insurers sell cheap policies - The Buffalo News
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House approves plan to let insurers sell cheap policies

WASHINGTON – The House on Friday moved one step beyond the president, voting to not only allow insurers to restore previously canceled health plans but to also let them sell those policies for one more year to new customers, even if those plans don’t offer all the benefits required under the new health reform law.

Acting a day after President Obama allowed insurers to reinstate plans that already had been canceled if states approve the move, the House voted by a 261-157 margin for that broader proposal. In the biggest Democratic defection in recent memory, 39 Democrats voted for the Republican-backed bill – but Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, opposed the legislation.

“Despite a lot of confusion and major screw-ups by the administration both in implementation and in messaging, we’ve got to try to fix this thing,” Higgins said of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health reform law. “And I think this bill presented a major step backwards.”

Higgins said he was particularly concerned that the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., differs from the president’s administrative action in that it would allow insurers to sell inferior policies with few benefits to new customers.

“I think the Upton bill goes back to the very things the Affordable Care Act is trying to counter, which is giving the insurance companies too much latitude ... ,” Higgins said.

Republicans begged to differ, saying the bill was a stronger step than the president took to fulfill his original promise that if people like their health plan, they can keep it.

“Families are worried and anxious about what their health care will look like next year,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. “One step in easing their concerns is to do what’s fair and give individuals the freedom and flexibility to choose the health care that best cares for their families.”

The legislation passed by the House faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, where Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and five of her Democratic colleagues are pushing a bill that – unlike the House bill or the president’s plan – would force insurers to restore the canceled plans. Landrieu’s bill, which would not allow insurers to sell those policies to new customers, also faces uncertain prospects.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that many Democrats in both houses of Congress – including Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand – are unhappy about the Obama administration’s botched rollout of, the main health plan website, as well as the president’s broken promise that those who wanted to keep those policies could do so.

The New York senators, who often send out more than one news release a day and who rarely seem publicity-shy, both left it to their spokesmen to discuss “Obamacare” on Friday.

“Sen. Schumer supports President Obama’s announcement that insurers can continue the 2014 health plans that they otherwise would have been forced to cancel,” said Schumer’s spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly. “He is going to study Sen. Landrieu’s bill as a potential way to improve the overall implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”

Meanwhile, Gillibrand’s spokeswoman, Bethany Lesser, said: “Like a lot of New Yorkers, Sen. Gillibrand is frustrated by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to date. Bottom line, the system needs to work better, and everyone should be pulling together to make sure that it does. She is open to looking at good-faith legislative ideas to fix the system in the Senate, including the Landrieu bill, but the reality is, the House speaker will only entertain scrapping the law entirely.”

Many Democrats contend that the bill passed by the House on Friday could be a big step toward destroying “Obamacare.” That’s because the bill would allow insurers to continue to sell new plans “that deploy practices such as not offering coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, charging women more than men, and continuing yearly caps on the amount of care that enrollees receive,” the White House said in a statement, promising that Obama would veto the measure.

The House bill also permits the sale of “mini-meds” – health plans that cap benefits at as little as $2,000 a year – that, according to some health experts, barely qualify as insurance at all.

Obamacare bans the sale of such plans – which are already illegal in New York – while also banning the sale of plans that don’t cover prescription drugs, which are commonly offered at smaller employers in the state.

Reversing course now and allowing the sale of such plans would undermine the health exchanges set up by New York, other states and the federal government to serve as marketplaces filled with decent health policies, Higgins said.

That’s because health experts presume it would be the young and healthy who would buy the mini-meds, rather than decent insurance, leaving the exchanges as bastions of the older and sicker – which would force insurers to increase the prices of policies on the exchanges.

But Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, doesn’t buy into that scenario.

“Next year’s rates are locked in and cannot be changed,” said Collins, who voted for the House bill. “And the extension we’ve done is for one year, so there won’t be any changes in any rates, anywhere in the United States, period.”

The vote on the House bill came a few hours before Obama met with insurance executives at the White House to attempt to ease their concerns about the balky website and the off-again, on-again promise that people can keep their insurance.

“I appreciate all these folks coming in,” Obama said before the meeting. “We’re going to be soliciting ideas from them. There’s going to be a collaborative process. We want to make sure that we get this done so that in the years to come every American is going to have the kind of affordable health care that they all deserve.”

Even so, lawmakers from both parties said it’s clear that not all Americans will get the health insurance they want.

Higgins, who voted for the health law when it passed in March 2010, said the drafts of the bill he reviewed at the time appeared to make it clear that people would be able to keep their insurance if they wanted to do so.

“That’s clearly what was in the bill and what we voted for. That was the assumption everybody was operating under,” said Higgins, who blamed regulations put forth by the Obama administration for prompting insurers to cancel health plans that don’t meet all of the law’s requirements.

Still, when pressed to describe legislation that he could support that would allow people to keep those policies, Higgins offered no specifics, instead encouraging both parties to work together on a comprehensive effort to address the law’s problems.

Asked if such a bill could restore policies that have been canceled, Higgins said: “I don’t know.”

Some 137,000 people in Western New York have seen their policies canceled, and it remains unclear whether any of them would get their policies back either under the president’s action Thursday or under a legislative fix. That’s partly because the state still has to decide whether to let those canceled policies be renewed.

And even if it does, Collins said there’s another big obstacle standing in the way of people who might want to get their old policies back: the calendar, which shows only six and a half weeks remaining before the dawn of the new year and the new federal requirement that everyone buy health insurance.

“Chances are the vast, vast majority of people are not going to have their policies reinstated at this late time frame,” Collins said.


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