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Critics see Trump sabotage on ObamaCare
The Trump administration is taking a hatchet to ObamaCare after failing to pass legislation through Congress repealing President Obama's signature law.
The administration has cut funding for advertising and outreach by 90 percent, raising the odds that fewer people will join the health-care exchanges during the fall enrollment period.
It has slashed funds by 41 percent for outside groups that help reach and enroll likely ObamaCare consumers.
The enrollment period has also been chopped in half, and the administration announced plans to take down the Healthcare.gov website for maintenance for hours at a time on several days during the sign-up period, two other steps likely to cut into enrollment.
All of these steps could lead fewer people to sign up for the law, which in turn might lead to higher premiums that could force others off the exchanges.
Healthy people are the most likely to drop coverage because of a lack of outreach, leaving a sicker group of enrollees that drives up costs for everyone else.
"One has to assume at this point that enrollment will be lower as a result of the administration's actions and that will lead to fewer healthier people signing up," said Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Trump attacks go beyond enrollment, too.
President Trump has threatened to cut off key ObamaCare payments to insurers in a bid to make the law "implode."
And on Friday, his administration took a new step to roll back the law, limiting the requirement for employers and insurance plans to cover birth control.
Andy Slavitt, a former top health-care official in the Obama administration, warned on Twitter Thursday that the administration's "sabotage" of the law added up to what he called "synthetic repeal," meaning a range of small steps that add up to repealing ObamaCare even if Congress doesn't act.
The administration counters that ObamaCare is a failing law that should not be propped up.
"Obamacare has never lived up to enrollment expectations despite the previous administration's best efforts," a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. "The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won't be convinced to sign up for 'Washington-knows-best' health coverage that they can't afford."
The cuts are having real world consequences already.
Reducing the outreach budget has forced local organizations known as navigators to dramatically scale back their operations.
Shelli Quenga, director of programs at the Palmetto Project, a navigator group in South Carolina, said her organization has had to cut staff from 62 people to 30 after its funding was reduced by around 50 percent.
"You want to talk about designed to fail?" she said. "This is the playbook for how to build something to make sure it fails."
Quenga said that she only found out about the cut to her organization's funding after the administration publicly made an announcement about the navigator cuts and she was called by a reporter for reaction.
She said the career officials she works with at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) were not aware of or involved in the decision to cut the funding, saying the decision was made at higher levels of the administration.
Navigators across the country had to scramble to craft new plans ahead of the open enrollment period beginning on Nov. 1.
"I'm just feeling very anxious about the fact that we have a whole lot less time to gear up then we should have had," said Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids and Families, which is affiliated with the University of South Florida.
"We had a very well thought out plan, and we definitely had to go back and revise that plan, except we didn't plan on having 3.5 weeks to put it together," said Ray, whose group will receive $900,000 less, a 15 percent reduction.
A group of former Obama administration officials this week announced plans to launch their own enrollment effort, called Get America Covered, to try to fill the gap left by the cuts.
Insurers and ObamaCare supporters are also on edge about an executive order from Trump that could come as soon as next week loosening rules to allow businesses and other groups to band together to purchase health insurance. The problem is that these special insurance plans are not subject to the same ObamaCare rules and pre-existing condition protections, which could suck the healthy enrollees out of ObamaCare plans and damage the market.
The administration has also resisted efforts by some states, even conservative ones, to make changes aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare.
Iowa submitted an innovation waiver, which lets states alter ObamaCare as long as the law's basic protections are retained. Part of the proposal included conservative reforms to the Affordable Care Act, yet President Trump reportedly wasn't on board.
Trump saw a story about the waiver in The Wall Street Journal, and asked CMS to deny it, according to The Washington Post.
The application has not been formally rejected, at least not yet. It is in the midst of a 30-day public comment period, and is still pending, an Iowa Insurance Division spokesman confirmed to The Hill.
But without it, Iowa's Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen has warned the impact "on many Iowa families would be catastrophic."
The deep-red state of Oklahoma had sought a waiver to help stabilize its markets, but withdrew it at the end of September because it hadn't received approval from the administration in time.
The withdrawal came even after "months of development, negotiation and near daily communication over the past six weeks" between the state and the administration, Oklahoma wrote in a letter complaining to the administration about the lack of action.
"While we appreciate the work of your staff, the lack of timely waiver approval will prevent thousands of Oklahomans from realizing the benefits of significantly lower insurance premiums in 2018," wrote Terry Cline, Oklahoma's Commissioner of Health.