Health Care Reform: Recent News & Events

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Top Dem Sees 'Train Wreck' For Obama Health Law - Thursday, April 18, 2013
Source: Associated Press
A senior Democratic senator who helped write President Barack Obama's health care law stunned administration officials Wednesday, saying openly he thinks it's headed for a "train wreck."

"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., told Obama's health care chief during a routine budget hearing that suddenly turned tense.

Baucus is the first top Democrat to publicly voice fears about the rollout of the new health care law, designed to bring coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans through a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance that start next year.

The six-term Democrat is also expected to face a tough re-election in 2014. Baucus is still trying to recover from approval ratings that nosedived amid displeasure with the health care law in his home state.

Normally low-key and supportive, Baucus challenged Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Wednesday's hearing.

He said he's "very concerned" that new health insurance marketplaces for consumers and small businesses will not open on time in every state, and that if they do, they might just flop because residents don't have the information they need to make choices.

"The administration's public information campaign on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act deserves a failing grade," he told Sebelius. "You need to fix this."

Responding to Baucus, Sebelius pointedly noted that Republicans in Congress last year blocked funding for carrying out the health care law, and she had to resort to raiding other departmental funds that were legally available to her.

The administration is asking for $1.5 billion in next year's budget, and Republicans don't seem willing to grant that either.

"I don't know what he's looking at," Sebelius told reporters following her out of the room after Baucus adjourned the hearing. "But we are on track to fully implement marketplaces in Jan. 2014, and to be open for open enrollment."

That open-enrollment launch is only months away, Oct. 1. It's when millions of middle-class consumers who don't get coverage through their jobs will be able to start shopping for a private plan in the new marketplaces, or exchanges. They'll also be able to find out if they qualify for tax credits that will lower their premiums. At the same time, low-income people will be steered to government programs, mainly an expanded version of Medicaid.

He reminded Sebelius they have discussed this many times and, yet, “I don’t see any results.” He then asked if HHS will set up benchmarks or surveys, “any data. I’d be happy to review data. You haven’t given me data, just concepts, frankly,” Baucus said.

The hearing turned heated as Baucus cut Sebelius off a few times while shouting questions as she answered them. “We do have a campaign and plans leading to open enrollment,” she said. “How many? What states?,” Baucus said, adding, “you can only do a decent job if you have the answers to these questions.” Sebelius responded that the request for proposal just went out and the information is not back in HHS hands yet.

 Also discussed at the hearing was the role of a broker in the exchanges and the definition of a navigator, which Sebelius defined as an individual who will go through training and be able to help educate people.

Questioned about the medical loss ratio and the potential loss of income for brokers and agents, Sebelius said that there is no prohibition for agents/brokers to be navigators.

Also, she added that state-run exchanges can designate an agent/broker to perform outreach within the funding models they develop. “We have not eliminated [a broker's] ability to do their jobs and bring people into insurance companies,” she said.

Baucus ended the nearly two-hour hearing with a cautious note. “Good luck,” he said to Sebelius.

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