Health insurers call on Congress to provide new funding for coverage amid pandemic

Health insurers call on Congress to provide new funding for coverage amid pandemic
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Health insurance companies are calling on Congress to provide more funding to help people keep coverage, citing the more than 44 million who have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus crisis started. 

The two main health insurance lobbying groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, wrote a letter to congressional leaders on Friday making a range of requests for the next coronavirus response package, expected later this month. 

“The adoption of each of these recommendations is critical to assuring that health insurance providers are able to deliver coverage that is reliable and high value in all markets,” the letter states. 

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Health insurers have benefited financially from the cancellation of costly elective procedures during the coronavirus pandemic, which they have no longer had to pay for. They argue they are not asking for direct financial assistance for themselves, unlike many other industries, but for support to help people keep insurance. That assistance would eventually flow up to health insurers as well.

The recommendations include increasing government subsidies under the Affordable Care Act that help people afford their premiums, and providing financial assistance to employers to help them keep employer-sponsored health coverage for their workers. 

A possibly more politically palatable recommendation, which is also included in the letter, is for the government to pick up the full cost to workers who lose their jobs through a program called COBRA. That program allows people who lose their jobs to keep the health insurance that the job provided, but it is usually very expensive for workers, unless the government steps in to pay the cost. 

Discussions on that front have been complicated, however, by a partisan dispute in Congress over potential restrictions on funds going to plans that cover abortions. 

Progressives such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters MORE (I-Vt.) have criticized the COBRA proposal. The move would allow “health insurance corporations [to] make massive profits off the plan,” Sanders wrote in a Politico op-ed in April. 

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Sanders and other progressives have instead proposed expanding government programs like Medicare to cover those who become uninsured due to the coronavirus economic crisis. But those proposals will go nowhere with Republicans, meaning COBRA has a better chance of the bipartisan support needed for passage. 

On the key issue of coronavirus testing, insurers are calling for additional federal funding to cover testing and help workplaces and people go back to work. The Trump administration issued guidance last month saying that insurers do not have to cover surveillance testing at workplaces, a decision insurers support, but that congressional Democrats blasted as letting the companies off the hook and skirting the requirements Congress set in previous response packages.

In the letter Friday, insurers said Congress should provide additional funding to cover that testing. 

“We know that Americans are anxious to maintain their health coverage, keep that coverage stable, ensure access to widespread and reliable testing, and ensure the resources needed to overcome COVID-19,” they said.

Asked whether insurers need action from Congress given their financial benefits from the cancellation of elective procedures, Kristine Grow, a spokeswoman for AHIP, wrote in an email that “it is too soon to know what the real financial impact of the virus will be.”

“We aren’t through this crisis yet,” she added. “And as elective and nonurgent procedures resume, those procedures must be paid for. It is possible that the care required will be more complex — and costly — because care and treatment were delayed."