WASHINGTON — Focusing on preventive care, expanding subsidies, and regulating association health plans (AHPs) were among the solutions proposed Tuesday to aid Americans with pre-existing health conditions, as the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing under the new Congress.
While the hearing was entitled “Protecting Americans with Pre-Existing Conditions,” much discussion centered around the policies within the Affordable Care Act, Republican efforts to repeal it, and recent reforms that tweaked American healthcare. Many lawmakers used their allotted time to blast other party members for either being too supportive of the ACA or attempting to “sabotage” it. Some lawmakers, however, promised to work together with members of the opposing party to help patients with pre-existing conditions — which some noted includes themselves and family members.
“Protections for people with pre-existing conditions has become the defining feature of the Affordable Care Act,” said witness Karen Pollitz, senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation; she noted that these protections also enjoy widespread public support.
The ACA forced insurance plans to accept and retain members with pre-existing conditions, many of whom could not afford plans before the legislation was enacted. But Trump administration policies and other reforms worry some experts and lawmakers that the millions of American with pre-existing conditions — ranging from moderate mental health diagnoses to cancer — are gradually being priced out of the healthcare system again, they said.
Protecting patients with pre-existing conditions is linked to controlling costs throughout American healthcare, many said. Recent legislation led to “artificial” cost increases for ACA marketplace plans and pushed some insurers to leave the market altogether, Pollitz said. These policies also have driven up premium prices.
“What we have here is an infrastructure problem,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said. “The disagreements are over how to pay for it.”
“All we are really debating here is who gets to pay,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said. “It’s time for radical rethinking: Are you [Democrats] willing to work with us to break down the barriers to have cost disruption?”
Several who spoke Tuesday offered potential solutions. Witness Keysha Brooks-Coley, of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, suggested lawmakers strengthen the ACA by addressing its so-called “family glitch” and eliminating the “subsidy cliff”; both policies currently withhold subsidies from many Americans who need them to pay for healthcare, she said.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, DPM (R-Ohio), called for turning lawmakers’ focus from squabbling about politics to studying preventative care. “There’s no part of me as a doctor that doesn’t want Americans to have access to quality healthcare,” the podiatrist said. “But I don’t necessarily agree with the direction (the ACA) went.”
“Let’s talk about incentivizing health: What do we have not only for the patient but for the physician?” he added. “Think about who gets rewarded in today’s system. Do we recognize the doctor who prevented the patient from needing open-heart surgery? That’s where we need to go, if you want to talk about the cost curve.”
One solution is actually quite simple, according to witness Rob Roberston, secretary-treasurer for the Nebraska Farm Bureau: regulate AHPs and encourage individuals to band together in groups to reduce premium costs, as many farmers and ranchers have in Nebraska. “This is not a political issue,” he said. “This is an issue of hardship, and we need to fix these individual markets and protect pre-existing conditions at the same time.”
Alas, judging by many lawmakers’ tone during a hearing that stretched over four hours, this does appear to be a political issue. “It’s really this long debate over Obamacare,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said. “We really need to work for a solution because Obamacare wasn’t a solution.”
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) then got into it. “What has led us here has been eight years of Republican persistence in trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “It’s great to hear they [Republicans] want to work with us and I hope they do.” The ACA is not perfect, Doggett acknowledged, but he quipped that perhaps “the most pre-existing condition” present Tuesday was “the political amnesia of those who have forgotten what it was like before the Affordable Care Act.”
Raising his voice, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) echoed the point: “If we would have been working together for the last six years to refine the Affordable Care Act, costs would be lower, coverage would be better.”
Many witnesses spoke against the Administration’s policy to loosen regulations on cheaper short-term plans that do not have to abide by ACA strictures. “The expansion of these plans does not help the consumer,” Brooks-Coley said. “It puts them at increased risk. … They are only less expensive upfront because they don’t cover [serious conditions].” In addition, Pollitz noted, many of these plans drop patients once they become ill and “have been shown to increase costs of ACA-compliant plans.”
The witnesses were asked to gauge what would happen if protections for patients with pre-existing conditions were to be removed. Younger women would pay more than men the same age, Pollitz said, and all pre-existing patients “would find it much more difficult to find coverage.”
“True harm would come,” Andrew Stolfi, Oregon Division of Financial Regulation’s insurance commissioner, told the committee. He cited Oregon’s pre-ACA experience: “You were lucky if you were even given the choice to take an insurer’s limited terms.”
Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) ended the hearing with optimism: “Today I heard a lot of members on the other side of the aisle say they support [requiring coverage for] pre-existing conditions, and I welcome that and hope we can work together.”