Mixed signals from Trump on health care strategy


Published 3:38 pm, Saturday, July 22, 2017

WASHINGTON — Repeal and replace Obamacare. Just repeal. Or let it fail — maybe with a little nudge. President Trump has sent a flurry of mixed messages, raising questions about the White House strategy on health care.

Democrats say Trump’s confusing signals are part of a strategy to destabilize the Affordable Care Act, as a way to force recalcitrant Republicans in Congress to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature law.

White House officials say they remain focused on trying to get a bill passed and have declined to delve deeply into their health care options if legislation fails.

“The White House does not have a strategy,” said health industry consultant Robert Laszewski, an Obamacare critic who said the administration is at a loss.

Another theory: Trump may have to cut his losses and take modest steps to sustain subsidized insurance markets if the GOP’s legislative drive fails. A Senate vote is planned Tuesday.

Insurance markets don’t appear to be on the verge of collapse as Trump and other Republicans keep saying. About 10 million people have individual policies under that part of Obamacare.

“Improving but fragile,” is how Standard & Poor’s analyst Deep Banerjee describes the insurance exchanges. “We expect on average for insurers to hit break even” in 2017.

And Obama’s Medicaid expansion, which provides coverage to another 11 million, is unaffected by problems on the exchanges.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has previously worked with Republicans on health care, sees a White House bent on mischief.

“They are doing everything they can to stoke the fires of uncertainty, which is what really damages this law,” Wyden said. “You can say ‘I’d like to change the law,’ but you don’t just say ‘We’re going to do everything in our power to undermine a law that is on the books.’ This is about being willing to hurt people in order to get a political advantage, and I’ve never seen a president doing it in such a brazen way.”

The Trump administration says what’s really hurting people is higher premiums and dwindling choice under Obamacare. Some major insurers have bailed out or scaled back their offerings on the exchanges, leaving many consumers with limited options.

But Democrats cite the administration’s pullback of open enrollment ads early this year as evidence of sabotage, along with the recently disclosed termination of federal contracts for sign-up assistance in 18 cities. Also the 2018 enrollment season has been shortened to 45 days, about half the time previously provided.

And the Health and Human Services Department has posted Internet videos of small business owners blaming high insurance costs on Obamacare. Those videos are “important and educational testimonials” that show the ACA has made affordable insurance “impossible for millions of Americans,” said agency spokeswoman Alleigh Marre.

It definitely looks like a hostile takeover, said economist Joe Antos of the business-oriented American Enterprise Institute, “but usually with a hostile takeover there is a business objective that is relatively clear.” In this case, he said, objectives seem to shift.

Laszewski, the consultant, put it this way: “First, it was the Democrats will come begging (Trump) to fix it. Then it was repeal and replace, then it was just repeal, and now it is repeal and replace again.”

The most immediate question is whether the Trump administration will continue monthly payments to insurers on subsidies that reduce deductibles and co-payments for consumers with modest incomes. “Cost-sharing reductions” total $7 billion a year.

The payments are embroiled in a lawsuit brought by House Republicans over whether the ACA specifically included a congressional appropriation for the money, as required under the U.S. Constitution. Elsewhere, the ACA text plainly says the government “shall” make the payments. But Trump recently suggested to GOP senators he might just stop.

With key 2018 decision deadlines nearing, insurers want a guarantee that the administration will keep making the payments.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Ken Thomas are Associated Press writers.

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