Published in Woonsocket Call on March 12, 2017
After years of calling for the dismantling of Obama’s signature health care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), dubbed Obamacare, an emboldened GOP controlling both the White House and two chambers of Congress, began legislative efforts to substantially change the way the federal government subsidizes health coverage for millions of Americans and puts the brakes on Medicaid expansion that extended coverage to millions more.
On March 6, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis), with the blessing of President Donald Trump, began his legislative efforts to enact the House GOP’s 123 page health care proposal, the new American Health Care Act (AHCA). Democratic lawmakers and aging groups charge that the AHCA lacks a fiscal estimate from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office as to how many people will lose their health insurance coverage as a result of the bill or how much it will cost.”
According to rating agency S&P Global Ratings, between 6 million and 10 million people could lose health insurance coverage if the GOP’s health care proposal to “repeal and replace” Obamacare passes. Specifically, there would be a decline in enrollment in the individual health insurance plan market of between 2 million and 4 million people. There would also be a decline of between 4 million and 6 million people in the nation’s Medicaid system after 2020 to 2024, says the recently released analysis.
GOP Health Proposal on Fast-Track
Just hours after AHCA was introduced early in the week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee began holding markups on their specific portions of the GOP’s health care proposal. After deliberating for almost 18 hours the Ways and Means approved its portion by a vote of 23-16, along party lines. After a marathon 27-hour markup session, the AHCA proposal was approved by the second House panel, Energy and Commerce Committee, by voted 31 to 23, by party line, too. Next week, the House Budget and Rules committees is expected to take up the GOP health care proposal, with a full House floor scheduled for the week of March 20. It has been reported that Ryan hopes to have a bill to President Trump for signature before April recess.
“Obamacare is rapidly collapsing. Skyrocketing premiums, soaring deductibles, and dwindling choices are not what the people were promised seven years ago. It’s time to turn a page and rescue our health care system from this disastrous law,” said House Speaker Ryan in a statement released when AHCA was thrown into the legislative hopper.
Ryan asserted that the GOP health care proposal would “drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance. It protects young adults, patients with pre-existing conditions, and provides a stable transition so that no one has the rug pulled out from under them.”
The GOP health care proposal would keep two of the most popular provisions of Obama’s ACA, specifically providing health care coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (though insurers would be allowed to charge higher premiums to individuals with lapsed health care coverage) and allowing children to stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26.
But, the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obama Care has brought aging groups together to put the brakes on House passage.
Aging Groups Come Out Swinging
Seniors’ advocates object to the ACHA’s impact on federal programs that provide both healthcare and long-term care to retirees. The bill rescinds an 0.9% tax on upper income earners’ wages, which had been used to extend the solvency of Medicare until 2028. Removing the tax decreases Medicare’s solvency by four years, which could lead to benefit cuts down the road. Advocates also decry the age-rating provisions in the repeal bill, which would allow insurers to charge older Americans up to five times as much for premiums as younger enrollees pay. The $4,000 tax credits for near seniors (aged 50-64) which replace Obamacare subsidies won’t make a dent in the premiums that this age group will pay under the GOP plan. Older Americans who can’t afford insurance will then arrive at the threshold of Medicare less healthy, putting additional strain on the system.
“This legislation is a triple whammy for seniors. It’s bad for Medicare beneficiaries, bad for near seniors, and bad for the Medicare program,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”
Richmond is especially alarmed that the AHCA also makes radical changes to the Medicaid program. The bill cuts $370 billion from Medicaid over 10 years by imposing “per capita caps,” meaning that states will get a fixed federal payment per beneficiary instead of the guaranteed match they now receive. Those fixed payments will not be able to keep pace with rising healthcare costs, leaving the states with significant shortfalls. “Millions of seniors rely on Medicaid for skilled nursing care, both in the home and at community-based facilities. The cut in federal payments will compel states to remove seniors from Medicaid rolls or radically reduce benefits, forcing them and their families into poverty.”
Following the release of the GOP’s AHCA, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group representing over 37 million members, came out swinging. The GOP legislative proposal would weaken Medicare, leaving the door open to a voucher program that shifts costs and risks to seniors, warned AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond in a statement.
“Before people even reach retirement age, big insurance companies would be allowed to charge them an age tax that adds up to thousands of dollars more per year. Older Americans need affordable health care services and prescriptions. This plan goes in the opposite direction, increasing insurance premiums for older Americans and not doing anything to lower drug costs, noted LeaMond.
LeaMond charged, “On top of the hefty premium increase for consumers, big drug companies and other special interests get a sweetheart deal. “Finally, Medicaid cuts could impact people of all ages and put at risk the health of 17.4 million children and adults with disabilities and seniors by eliminating much needed services that allow individuals to live independently in their homes and communities.”
“Although no one believes the current health care system is perfect, this harmful legislation would make health care less secure and less affordable,” says LeaMond, noting that her nonprofit aging group will work with either political party to hammer out a health plan that “puts Americans’ health care first, not the special interests.”
Adds Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy in a statement, “the proposed AHCA would also gut key financing mechanisms of the Affordable Care Act that would amount to tax cuts for the wealthy – by some estimates, by hundreds of billions of dollars. Regrettably, these tax cuts include provisions that would jeopardize Medicare’s financial stability. “We fear such cuts will lead to renewed calls to ‘save’ Medicare by privatizing it for future generations,” says Stein.
According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy’s statement, the proposed GOP legislative proposal would dismantle key structural supports of ACA, including eliminating the employer coverage mandate and the individual mandate to obtain health coverage, and instead would impose a 30 percent penalty for lapses in coverage. Instead of the ACA’s subsidies that make health coverage more affordable for millions, the new legislation would offer age-based tax credits ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000 – likely insufficient to pay for meaningful insurance coverage.
The Medicare Advocacy Group also warns that older Americans needing health insurance coverage before becoming Medicare eligible would also be hit hard by the proposed AHCA. The ACA’s protection of older adults that prevents insurance companies from charging no more than three times the premium amount charged of younger individuals (a 3:1 ratio) would be replaced by a higher 5:1 ratio – this dramatically increasing the premium amount insurance companies can charge older adults. Critics call this change an “age tax.”
Finally, the Republican’s AHCA would also phase out ACA’s expansion of Medicaid starting in 2020, structurally reforming virtually the entire Medicaid program (including Medicaid expansion). These changes would have a devastating impact on providing health care by capping federal Medicaid payments to each state to a limited, preset amount per person (often referred to as a “Per Capita Cap”).
Could Political Backlash Happen with Passage of AHCA?
Last Thursday, Ryan, with sleeves rolled up, urged GOP lawmakers to back AHCA, promising tweaks to address Republican conservatives’ concerns. At the 23 minute news conference, Ryan said: “This is the closest we’ve been to repealing and replacing Obamacare and it’s the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare.” It is either voting for the House bill, or let ACA survive, he said.
President Trump also chimed in to the AHCA debate, too, by calling for the controversial health care proposal’s enactment in an afternoon tweet. “Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!,” he tweeted.
As the Congressional April recess approaches opposition to AHCA is building as physician, nurse and hospital groups warn that the legislative proposal’s enactment will take health care coverage away from millions of Americans. While Democratic and progressive organizations oppose ACA’s passage, too, a growing number of GOP lawmakers and conservative groups, from the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots, are expressing their concerns.
Days ago, Andrev Ostrovskv, chief medical officer for Medicaid at the Baltimore, Maryland-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid based, risking the wrath of Trump’s political appointees in his federal agency, tweeted his displeasure and opposition. “Despite political messaging from others at HHS [Health and Human Services], I align with the experts from @aafp @AmerAcadPeds @AmerMedicalAssn in opposition to #AHCA,” he tweeted. Dr. Ostrovskv’s agency oversees the administering of Obamacare.
Even if the GOP House Leadership are able to address conservative lawmaker concerns, one being AHCA does not require an earlier halt to Medicaid expansion enrollment, the GOP’s health care proposal appears to have a rocky road to travel in the upper chamber. Senate. Republications, having just a 52-48 slim majority, can only lose two votes.
Says Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) in a tweet to House GOP Leadership: “ House health-care bill can’t pass Senate w/o major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don’t get it fast.”
With the popularity of Obamacare the GOP’s death wish to repeal and replace the law may well be hazardous to the Republican Party’s political health. We’ll find out for sure in the mid-term elections.