Washington – Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, was the only Connecticut U.S. House member to vote for a GOP bill Friday that would allow insurers to renew individual insurance policies and sell similar policies to new customers next year, even if they don’t provide the comprehensive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.
President Obama has used his executive authority to allow insurers to renew policies next year that don’t meet the ACA’s standard. But he does not want new health insurance customers to buy what he considers substandard plans and has threatened to veto the House Republican bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
Upton said the White House acted at the last minute “as the administration’s allies in Congress panicked” at the firestorm of public discontent at the rash of cancelation notices Americans have received in the last few weeks.
But despite the president’s action Thursday to take the pressure off congressional Democrats and the White House by allowing insurers to renew policies that were purchased next year, 39 Democrats, including Esty, voted for Upton’s bill. It was approved on a 261 to 157 vote, but its fate in the Democratic-led Senate is unclear.
The defection of so many Democrats on the bill is an embarrassment to party leaders and the White House.
“House leaders knew there would be defections, but hoped there would be fewer of them,” a Democratic aide said.
In a statement, Esty said she voted for the Upton bill because constituents are upset about the cancelation notices insurers have sent out.
“My top priority is ensuring that the Affordable Care Act works well for folks in my district. I am hearing from small business owners and other affected individuals in central and northwest Connecticut who feel blindsided by recent cancellation notices from their insurance companies,” Esty said.
Many Democrats are angry at Obama for assuring Americans “if you like your insurance you can keep it,” only to be burned by the complaints of constituents receiving cancellation notices on policies that renew on Jan. 1 or later. The ACA has a provision that allowed for the “grandfathering” of certain policies, but it appears insurers are cancelling some of those policies, as well as others.
“In the last three years,” Upton said, “the president personally promised that if people liked their current health care plan, they could keep it ‘no matter what.’ But cancellation notices are now arriving in millions of mailboxes across the country. It’s cancellation today, sticker shock tomorrow.”
Esty said she had heard from retirees who were assured their insurance coverage would continue as part of negotiated benefits packages.
“In some cases, these people had previously been assured that their plans were protected by the grandfather clause. Today’s bill may not be the perfect solution, but the need for swift corrective action is urgent for many people in my district,” Esty said.
She said “the president’s administrative action yesterday is an important step,” but she is “committed to supporting legislative action to help address the problems facing my constituents and to ensure that the Affordable Care Act works well for people in my district.”
Esty’s release said she has “consistently opposed legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
But she has voted with the GOP on the issue before.
With approval of Upton’s bill, House Republicans have voted 47 times to repeal or amend the ACA and this is the second time Esty has joined them.
In July, she voted for a House GOP bill that would delay the ACA’s requirement that nearly all Americans have health insurance.
The bill was promoted by House Republicans after Obama postponed the ACA’s requirement that all businesses with 50 or more employees provide health insurance for their workers.
GOP lawmakers — and Democrats who supported the bill like Esty — said individuals should also be given the same break.
But most Democrats viewed the bill as another attempt to gut Obamacare. A liberal group, MoveOn.org, launched a campaign against Esty and fellow Democrats who voted for the bill, saying it wanted to “hold them accountable for trying to delay President Obama’s landmark health care legislation from going into effect.”
Esty has a Republican challenger, Mark Greenberg, who is running against the Affordable Care Act.
On Thursday, Obama apologized repeatedly, saying he had no idea insurers would cancel so many policies and should have had a better handle on the situation before he promised Americans they could keep their plans.
“There have been times where I thought we were . . . slapped around a little bit unjustly. This one’s deserved, all right? It’s on us,” Obama said.
With his move, Obama also shifted the blame for canceled policies to insurers, who say the president’s proposal would disrupt their markets.
Representatives of the industry, including Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, met with the president at the White House Friday afternoon.
A White House official said insurance executives met with Obama and senior administration officials “to discuss ways to work together to help people enroll through the Marketplace and efforts to minimize disruption for consumers as they transition to new coverage.”
“What we’re going to be doing is brainstorming on how do we make sure that everybody understands what their options are,” Obama told the executives.
Bertolini declined a request for an interview.
David Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna Healthcare, headquartered in Bloomfield, was also there, as were representatives from Kaiser Permanente, Wellpoint, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Humana and other large insurance companies. Ignagni also attended the White House meeting.
“The discussion was productive – the insurance CEOs and administration officials discussed the next steps in working with states and state insurance commissioners to use the new flexibility the administration announced to address cancellation notices going to consumers,” a White House official said.
Insurers believe allowing people on the individual market, who tend to be healthier than the population at large, to keep their existing policies will mean the new state exchanges will enroll a greater percentage of sicker people.
Insurance companies were also hoping to dump cheap policies that do not offer full coverage and steer customers to the more comprehensive policies required by the ACA .
“Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers,” America’s Health Insurance Plans CEO Karen Ignagni said in a statement Thursday. “Premiums have already been set for next year based on an assumption of when consumers will be transitioning to the new marketplace.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners agreed the president’s move would be disruptive to the insurance market and result in higher premiums.
But neither AHIP or the NAIC has weighed in on the Upton bill, which would keep more people out of the exchanges.
Obama said it is up to each state insurance commissioner to allow insurers in their state to continue policies. The Connecticut Department of Insurance on Friday said it has still not made a decision whether to do so.
Commissioners in Washington state and Arkansas have rejected the president’s plan.
Aetna said it would need “expedited approval” by state insurance commissioners in order to be able to renew policies as well as for the removal of “barriers that would make it difficult to make this change in such a short period of time.”
“State regulators will need to allow us to update our policies and secure appropriate rates so we can get these plans back in the market,” a statement released by Aetna on Thursday said.
The focus on Capitol Hill now shifts to the Senate.
Both the president’s proposal and the Upton bill fall short of a proposal by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., that would force insurers to permanently keep around old plans for existing customers.
Landrieu’s bill has picked up the support of six Democrats, Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Dianne Feinstein of California, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
All but Feinstein and Manchin face reelection next year.