By Elise Viebeck - 03/03/14 08:53 PM EST
The Obama administration is set to announce another major delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act, easing election pressure on Democrats.
As early as this week, according to two sources, the White House will announce a new directive allowing insurers to continue offering health plans that do not meet ObamaCare’s minimum coverage requirements.
The cancellations would have created a firestorm for Democratic candidates in the last, crucial weeks before Election Day.
The White House is intent on protecting its allies in the Senate, where Democrats face a battle to keep control of the chamber.
“I don’t see how they could have a bunch of these announcements going out in September,” one consultant in the health insurance industry said. “Not when they’re trying to defend the Senate and keep their losses at a minimum in the House. This is not something to have out there right before the election.”
The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services on Monday both said they had no updates to announce.
Late last year, the administration was grappling with the beleaguered HealthCare.gov and millions of canceled health plans in the individual market.
Republicans noted President Obama had repeatedly promised that no one would lose their health plan if they wanted to keep it.
Obama subsequently called on states and the insurance industry to allow people to keep their existing plans for an additional year. While many states agreed, it left the administration with a dilemma.
A one-year moratorium pushed the deadline beyond the midterm election, but insurers must send out cancellation notices 90 days in advance. That would mean notices in the mail by Oct. 1, five weeks before voters go to the polls.
The administration’s decision to pursue another extension was confirmed by insurance sources who predicted a public announcement would be “imminent.” It is unclear how long the extension will be, though one source believed it could last to the end of Obama’s second term, and perhaps beyond.
This issue is sure to be discussed during the 2016 presidential race, in which Hillary Clinton is expected to run.
In November, amid the rash of health plan cancellations, former President Clinton said Obama should allow people to keep their current coverage.
“I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton said at the time.
Allowing insurers to continue offering noncompliant health plans for several years would substantially alter the health insurance landscape under ObamaCare.
It would also undercut one rationale for the healthcare reform law.
Under the Affordable Care Act, health plans are required to offer 10 medical benefits that the Obama administration deems essential.
Some of the services are popular, such as prescription drug coverage, but others, such as maternity and pediatric care, have been criticized as expensive as well as being unnecessary for many policyholders, such as older people.
Nonetheless, the White House has consistently argued its requirements improve health insurance standards and shield consumers from unexpected costs associated with bare-bones policies.
“There are a number of Americans, fewer than 5 percent of Americans, who’ve got cut-rate plans that don’t offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident,” Obama said in Boston in October.
“Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad-apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received, or use minor preexisting conditions to jack up your premiums or bill you into bankruptcy. So a lot of people thought they were buying coverage, and it turned out not to be so good.”
The new standards have also created a political mess for the White House by forcing insurance companies to cancel policies that do not comply.
The rush of cancellation letters last fall forced Obama to acknowledge that he had been wrong to promise that Americans could keep their plans under the reform. The administration later said that people with canceled plans could buy catastrophic policies once intended mainly for young people.
While the storm has quieted since the fall, Republicans are eager to note that many vulnerable Democrats also promised before ObamaCare passed that consumers could keep their plans.
“If you like the insurance that you have, you’ll be able to keep it,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” in 2009.
Landrieu, a GOP target in her 2014 election, has since proposed a bill that would allow people in the individual market to keep their current policies as long as they continue to pay their premiums. Other vulnerable Senate Democrats back the legislation.
“When we passed the Affordable Care Act, we did so with the intention that if you liked your health plan, you could keep it,” Landrieu said in November. “A promise was made, and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept.”
Health insurers are meeting in Washington, D.C., this week for two major conferences hosted by their trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans.
Several sources said they had heard chatter about an extension but that the administration had not made efforts to discuss the possibility with industry officials.
“From a political standpoint, that’s expected,” said one source of the silence. “Nobody is surprised. It’s not like it’s our first time around.”
The industry has been the subject of a variety of delays and extensions in ObamaCare’s rollout over the past five months.
One company executive complained that the White House’s tendency to shift deadlines makes it hard to price health policies accurately.
“These continual delays, these stops and starts, make it very difficult because we set rates based on predictive modeling,” the executive said.
“When you change the rules, it has a detrimental impact on your ability to calculate your risk pool and your prices.”