GOP split over best way to exploit waiver turmoil

Republicans and their allies are split on how best to exploit a growing controversy over healthcare reform waivers that has dogged Democrats for months.

Even as a powerful Tea Party group is encouraging states and businesses to seek waivers, House Republicans have called into question whether the government has the authority to grant them.

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Meanwhile, some Republican policy heavyweights are uncomfortable with arguments from other prominent conservatives that suggest Democrats and the Obama administration are handing out the waivers to favored interests. They argue the GOP threatens to undermine its own position against the healthcare law with the attacks.

“When you can have a fact-based argument and win on the merits, you should do that,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (Texas), the second-highest-ranking 

Republican on the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee.

More than 1,000 companies have won waivers from a provision in the healthcare law that requires insurance plans to offer coverage of up to at least $750,000 a year. The companies said they needed the waivers because they could not afford to provide that level of coverage.

Regardless of the strategy they end up adopting, there’s little doubt that the controversy has given Republicans a winning hand. Polls suggest a majority of voters think individuals, who will be subject to the same rule as businesses in 2014, should also get the waivers.

Some 62 percent of respondents — including 50 percent of Democrats — believe individuals should be able to ask for waivers, according to a recent poll for the Tea Party-affiliated Let Freedom Ring. Sixty-seven percent said Congress, not the administration, should be granting the waivers.

At the same time, some critics of the law want the GOP to go further and seek to repeal the annual limits provision that’s prompting the waivers in the first place. Ironically, that could end up playing into Democrats’ hands by removing an embarrassing process that requires the administration to consider waivers every month.

“There’s a lot of internal debate on that,” acknowledged Alex Cortes, who’s running Let Freedom Ring’s Where’s My Waiver? campaign. “Generally, a lot of people say you shouldn’t make a bad law better, but in this case there’s so many provisions that we can message on that I don’t think that’s particularly a problem.”

The Obama administration says the waivers offer only a temporary exemption from a single provision of the law. Their goal is to prevent employers from ceasing to offer low-value “mini-med” health policies before the healthcare law’s state insurance exchanges and federal subsidies offer people a range of affordable options starting in 2014.

Cortes said House Republicans have done a good job raising questions about the waivers and the administration’s refusal to release information about rejected waiver applications. Still, he said, more could be done, such as a Universal Waiver Act that would in effect repeal the annual limit provision.

“I think there are more legislative vehicles out there that aren’t being fully taken advantage of,” Cortes said.

The waivers offer critics a golden opportunity to argue that the law could cause employers to drop coverage, violating President Obama’s pledge that under the law, people who like their health plan will be able to keep it. The issue took on a new life over the past week after The Hill reported that the administration has now granted 1,372 waivers, covering 3.1 million people.

After the right-leaning Daily Caller revealed that some 20 percent of the most recent waivers were granted to businesses in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D) San Francisco district, conservatives pounced.

“Unflippingbelievable!” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told the publication. “Seriously, this is corrupt.”

“Another example of really crony politics or crony capitalism,” former Minnesota governor and presidential contender Tim Pawlenty told Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “If you’ve got the right connections, the right lobbyists, the right interest group, you get your special deal, and the rest of us get our wallet out.”

Simultaneously, Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee were issuing a statement noteworthy for its restraint. It used the administration’s own justifications to highlight the law’s unintended consequences.

“Despite the president’s promise, the new reality seems to be this: If you like your plan, you need a waiver to keep it — and only until 2014, when the waivers disappear and the government takes over the market,” the statement said.

There’s no evidence that Pelosi was involved or even knew about the waivers, however, and the third-party administrator that asked for them says the leading House Democrat was not involved.

Burgess told The Hill that he would rather Republicans refrain from making unsubstantiated claims.

“We do have the facts on our side,” he said, “and maybe if we stayed completely businesslike and argued from the facts, maybe we can win this argument.”

Still, he declined to fault critics of the law who haven’t shown as much restraint.

“I can’t fault anyone who’s engaged in a little bit of hyperbole with this,” Burgess said. “Make no mistake about it: There are times when you need to get people’s attention, and overstating things is stock in trade for Washington.”


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