Democratic lawmakers look to hold insurance industry's feet to fire

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Democrats who have been in a defensive crouch because of the botched rollout of ObamaCare are beginning to take the offensive by scrutinizing insurance companies, a longtime Democratic bête noire.

Some Democrats think insurance executives are having it both ways, by reaping big profits from new customers entering the market because of federal subsidies and mandates while simultaneously blaming ObamaCare for problems in the market.

President Obama has been reluctant to directly criticize insurance companies because he needs their cooperation to achieve as smooth a transition as possible to the new insurance marketplaces.

Obama met with industry executives at the White House Friday afternoon to brainstorm about ways to improve the law’s rocky rollout, which has hurt the president and his party in public polling.

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Democratic lawmakers have taken a more aggressive posture, however. They are pressuring the industry to take responsibility for hundreds of thousands of people who want to keep their insurance plans but could not until this past week because they failed to meet ObamaCare’s requirements.

They say the ball is now in the industry’s court after the president announced his administration would let companies continue to offer plans that do not meet the law’s standards if people want to keep them.

“What we have to do is have all legislators team up and call upon the insurance industry to honor their side of the bargain because it requires not only the government side but it requires the insurance companies to keep offering the policies and not cancel them on folks,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“I’ll be calling on insurance companies to continue to extend the individual plans that citizens currently have,” he said.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said companies should take advantage of the one-year administrative fix Obama announced Thursday.

“This now rests at the feet of the insurance companies. They’re the ones that have to step up and make the plans available,” the aide said.

Unlike competing bills proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who both face competitive elections next year, Obama’s plan does not mandate insurance companies to let people keep the plans they like if they do not conform to the law’s requirements.

House Democrats on Friday proposed legislation to empower the secretary of Health and Human Services and state insurance commissioners to go after “bad actor” insurance companies and take action against “excessive, unjustified, unfair and discriminatory rates.”

“They blame ObamaCare for anything they do that’s different,” said a House Democratic aide. “They’re making a lot of pocket book decisions.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) privately expressed her frustration with the industry at a recent meeting with colleagues.

She grumbled that insurance companies have it “both ways” by being able to blame ObamaCare for rising premiums while also gaining millions of new customers because of the law, said a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

“She said they’re smiling all the way to the bank,” the lawmaker said.

Democrats have long been critical of the business practices of the insurance industry, a motivating factor behind passing the Affordable Care Act in the first place.

In March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to grant the Department of Health and Human Services authority to block or modify “excessive” rate increases.

“I tried to include regulatory rate review in the health reform law that passed Congress in 2010, but without further legislative action, consumers will continue to be at the mercy of health insurance companies as their premiums grow beyond the rate of medical inflation,” Feinstein said at the time.

Senate Democratic support for Feinstein’s bill could swell if lawmakers think industry executives have not done enough to keep premiums in check during the transition to the new government-backed insurance exchanges.

So far, Feinstein’s bill has five cosponsors: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) sponsored a companion measure with 24 cosponsors in the House.

In the meantime, the president is taking a more conciliatory approach with industry.

“We'll talk about ways we can work together to help people enroll through the marketplace and efforts we can make to minimize disruption for consumers as they transition to new coverage,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters before Obama’s meeting with executives.

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