GOP struggles to land punches at ObamaCare insurance hearing

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Republicans struggled to land punches against ObamaCare in a hearing Wednesday, as responses from insurance companies deflated several lines of questioning. 

Democratic lawmakers were emboldened to defend the Affordable Care Act with renewed vigor and levity, creating a dynamic rarely seen in the debate over ObamaCare.

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Adding to the irregularity, exits on the Republican side at a subcommittee hearing led by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) allowed multiple Democrats to speak in a row and let heavy Democratic criticism of Republicans go unanswered, a contrast with the heated exchanges of last fall. 

The discussion was not always favorable to the healthcare law, as it touched on health plan cancellations, the potential for premium increases in 2015 and problems that still plague the back end of HealthCare.gov. 

Witnesses from the insurance industry were also careful in their comments and promised to submit several answers to the committee at a later date.

But Republicans were visibly exasperated, as insurers failed to confirm certain claims about ObamaCare, such as the committee's allegation that one-third of federal exchange enrollees have not paid their first premium. 

Four out of five companies represented said more than 80 percent of their new customers had paid. The fifth, Cigna, did not offer an estimate. 

Republicans also stumbled in asking insurers to detail next year's premium rates. Companies are still in the process of calculating prices, and they have a strong financial incentive not to air early projections in public. 

“Has anybody done any kind of analysis?” said a frustrated Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), vice chairman of the wider Energy and Commerce Committee. “You all have conducted no internal analysis on what the trend line is for these premiums?” 
 
“At this point in the filing season, we can't offer any guidance or speculate on where [premiums] are going to fall,” said Paul Wingle, executive director of public exchange operations at Aetna. 

“At this juncture, we don't have the information,” added Dennis Matheis, president of exchange strategy with Wellpoint. 

The back-and-forth underscores the growing divide between Republicans and the insurance industry over the healthcare law.

Insurers have worked hard to make the Affordable Care Act's exchanges successful and are expected to substantially increase their participation in the system over time. 

That has estranged the industry from Republican critics of the law and created an uneasy alliance between health insurance companies and the White House.

Later in the hearing, Republicans resorted to classic jabs against the healthcare law, noting that President Obama's promise to save families $2,500 on their premiums has not come true. 

Democrats, meanwhile, jumped at the opportunity to hammer the GOP. 

“This has been a very illuminating hearing because it's shown what our colleagues on the other side's strategy is: Grab a headline that will scare the American people about the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). 

The hearing was conducted by the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.