Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) is ramping up his vow to block all of President Obama’s health-related nominees until he gets answers about the failure of ObamaCare co-op plans.
Twelve of the 23 co-ops — nonprofit health insurers set up under ObamaCare and meant to compete with established companies — have failed because of financial problems.
Sasse has demanded answers from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about why the co-ops are failing but said he had heard nothing. He now plans to use Robert Califf’s nomination as Food and Drug Administration commissioner as leverage.
“It shouldn’t take this long,” Sasse said in an interview, adding that he hoped the threats to hold up Califf would lead to answers.
“We’re now over six months since I started asking questions,” he added.
Sasse, a freshman senator who waited 10 months before giving his first address on the Senate floor earlier this month, is a rising conservative star who sailed to an election win in 2014.
The former university president won conservative support when he entered the GOP race to succeed retiring Sen. Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE in 2014. He was backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which took on Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE (R-Ky.) in that cycle by backing the GOP leader’s primary challenger.
Sasse has made his criticism of the ObamaCare co-ops an early signature issue. He wants HHS to provide him with documents and answers about a range of questions related to the taxpayer-funded loans given to the co-ops and the administration’s oversight of their finances.
HHS told The Hill that it provided additional information to the freshman senator on Wednesday.
“The Department responded to the Senator this summer regarding his letter on the Consumer Operated and Oriented Program and specifically CoOpportunity Health in Nebraska, and we will continue working with his office to address follow-up questions,” HHS spokesman Ben Wakana said in a statement.
Sasse hopes to shine a spotlight on the co-op failures by holding up Califf’s nomination.
Republicans have jumped on the closures, portraying them as evidence of ObamaCare’s failings. But Sasse, a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, says that he is simply looking into “competence in oversight.”
The co-ops received about $2.4 billion in government loans, and the ones that have failed account for more than $1 billion of that sum. Sasse and other Republicans have raised questions about whether that money will ever be repaid.
Sasse first wrote to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell in May, asking questions about the failure of the first co-op to fall, an insurer called CoOpportunity, which covered Iowa and his home state of Nebraska.
Burwell responded with a five-page letter to Sasse in June. But Sasse dismisses that letter as a “boilerplate, non-response.”
He wrote back in August to say that his first round of questions had not been satisfactorily answered and that it remained unclear when HHS learned of CoOpportunity’s financial problems or whether they could have been prevented.
Burwell said that co-ops are required to submit quarterly financial statements, but Sasse objected that the letter did not indicate how the statements were evaluated over time or what the cause of failure was.
Sasse also faulted Burwell for noting that review of the premium rates set by insurers is a state duty. Sasse wrote that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) “takes no responsibility” for what he describes as rates that were set too low to make the business viable.
Burwell ended her letter by writing, “Please let me know if you have further thoughts or suggestions on how best to approach this difficult situation. I appreciate your attention to this important issue.”
Before Wednesday, Sasse had not received a response to his August follow-up or to an October letter asking for copies of the financial reports from the failed co-ops.
CMS Chief of Staff Mandy Cohen testified before two House hearings on co-ops earlier this month.
At the hearings, some Democratic lawmakers sought to shift the blame to congressional Republicans, noting that they cut the funding for the co-op program from $6 billion down to around $2.4 billion.
Across both hearings, Cohen did not give specific time frames for when the administration learned of the financial troubles, noting, “Each circumstance was very unique.”
She also said that she did not have a projection for how much of the loans the government would be able to get back.
“Obviously that money went to provide coverage to Americans over the past two years, so we know all dollars won’t come back to us,” Cohen said. “But we will be using all tools available to recover any unspent taxpayer dollars.”
While Califf appears on track for confirmation without Sasse’s objections, the freshman senator is getting support from his colleagues.
“I think it’s right to want to go get answers, and if the administration isn’t forthcoming then senators will use whatever opportunities they have to get the answers that they’re looking for,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit Here are the 11 GOP senators who helped advance the debt extension MORE (R-Wyo.).