Bills to stop O-Care payments to insurers gain support

Republican lawmakers are quietly gathering support for legislation to stop the federal government from cushioning the blow for health insurance companies whose costs rise more than expected under ObamaCare.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) are behind bills to repeal the healthcare law's "risk corridors" provision. That section creates a temporary pool of money to pay insurers who enroll a higher-than-expected number of sick patients with expensive bills.

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While at least some of the payments will be funded by insurers themselves — the law requires companies with better-than-expected results to contribute to the pot — critics argue that the payments will be a burden on taxpayers.

Representatives from both offices said support grew for their bills after conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer derided the payments as a "government bailout" for insurance companies in a piece published Jan. 2.

"Such a bill would be overwhelmingly popular because Americans hate fat-cat bailouts of any kind," Krauthammer wrote. "The GOP House should pass it and send it to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid's Democratic Senate."

The issue is at the forefront as Republicans seek every opening to hammer problems with ObamaCare ahead of November's midterms.

And yet, while the party is intent on making healthcare its No. 1 battering ram, there is less support for attaching measures like Rubio's to the debt ceiling, one approach urged by Krauthammer.

The House may choose to vote on the legislation as a means to pressure the Democratically led Senate, sources said, though it is unclear when that vote would come.

Griffin's bill currently has 44 co-sponsors while Rubio's has 11, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"At the end of the day, it seems hard to believe that the Senate would put insurance companies ahead of taxpayers and not pass Sen. Rubio's legislation," said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.

Defenders of the "risk corridors" say they are necessary to ensure stable pricing on the exchanges in case too few healthy people sign up in the first year.

Supporters also note that the pool of funds will only last through 2016, and that the government stands to make money if the enrollment results are better than expected.

With just under three months left before registration closes, it is difficult to predict how the risk pools will shape up. But data published Monday by the administration suggests results have been mixed so far.

Roughly one-quarter of people who signed up for private ObamaCare coverage between October and December were between the ages of 18 and 34, federal health officials said. This is far below the 40-percent benchmark considered optimal for the exchanges.

The announcement triggered a wave of criticism on the right as Republicans called the numbers another sign of failure for ObamaCare's rollout.

The administration, meanwhile, said it expects a rush of young people to sign up in the next three months. Some experts also said the exchanges will still function if only 25 percent of sign-ups are from younger people.