Senate Democrats: Obamacare a 'Regulatory Health Coverage No Man's Land'

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on February 14th, The White House’s top Obamacare regulator found himself dodging bullets from an unexpected source: the very Democrats who passed President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

During this little-publicized hearing, Democrats grilled Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, the HHS office that is overseeing much of the implementation of Obamacare, including the state exchanges, where consumers will supposedly purchase federally-regulated health insurance plans.

James Taranto of the Wall St. Journal summarized some of the blistering criticisms of the new health reform law by Democrat Senators Bill Nelson (FL), Maria Cantwell (WA), Ron Wyden (OR), and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (MT), all of whom voted for the law.

Sen. Wyden criticized the Obama administration for not extending the law’s definition of “affordable” coverage to family plans.

Obamacare provides subsidies to those who cannot afford employer-sponsored health insurance. The law, however, defines an “affordable” plan as an individual policy that costs less than 9.5 percent of an employee’s salary. If an employee can insure himself for less than 9.5 percent but cannot afford to insure his family through his employer, he would not be eligible for subsidies, and health care coverage would not be “affordable.”

“We’ve got millions of people- working-class, middle-class people- who are going to be pushed into a regulatory health coverage no man’s land,” Wyden claimed. “They are unable to afford the family coverage through their employer and ineligible for the subsidy that could be used by dependents on the exchange.”

Sen. Nelson blasted HHS for inviting Congress to cut funding for healthcare co-ops, which was eliminated in the year-end fiscal cliff deal, even though applications for new co-ops were already in the works. According to Nelson, HHS officials offered up the program as a sacrificial lamb that Congress could cut out.

“Why was that negotiated away at the 11th hour?” scolded Nelson. “I want somebody to be accountable for this, and if it was a mistake, for somebody to own up to it.”

Cohen apparently had no reply.

Criticizing the Obama administration for delays in the implementation of the Basic Health Program, an option for states to provide cost-efficient health coverage outside of Medicaid and the new health insurance exchanges, Sen. Cantwell asserted to Cohen, “You are overwhelmed by the details and technology, I get that point… it seems as if the agency is taking pages out of the law.”

Cantwell also seemed to be questioning the motive behind the administration’s delay of the Basic Health Program, from 2014 to 2015, which has caused state officials, who have agreed to set up the exchanges, to complain to their representatives.

Cantwell warned that members of the Senate Finance Committee would not tolerate HHS sabotaging the states in their cost-control efforts.

“What I’m very concerned about is the agency seems to think the technology of the exchange is the holy grail, and you’re trying to lure states” into the exchanges, Cantwell charged. “We’re very concerned about the approach by the agency in trying to thwart this effort. Are you artificially raising the cost to all taxpayers by trying to lure them onto the exchange?”

Cohen replied that HHS had other priorities that came before the Basic Health Plan, and the administration was not trying to lure people into the exchanges.

Referring to the computer systems at Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service as “archaic,” Sen. Baucus asked how the online health insurance exchanges would be able to be integrated into the systems of these other federal agencies in order to play a role in providing and assessing health insurance coverage.


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