House passes GOP health cover fix, aided by Democratic rebels

39 House Democrats join Republicans to vote for plan that would allow insurers to keep selling existing policies

From left, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Fred Upton and Speaker John Boehner, all Republicans, at a press conference on Wednesday where they addressed the Keep Your Health Plan Act.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

A bill that would allow insurance companies to sell policies, both to new and existing customers, that do not meet the minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed the House of Representatives 261-157 Friday afternoon. Thirty-nine Democrats joined 222 Republicans in voting for the move.

The final tally is sure to sound some alarm in the Obama administration. The number of Democratic defections is the most visible sign of concerns in the party over the troubled implementation of the health care law, and of worries that it may become a cudgel used against vulnerable House Democrats facing re-election in 2014.

The Keep Your Health Plan Act of 2013, sponsored by Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, is not expected to be taken up by the Senate. The White House has already announced that President Barack Obama would veto the measure.

House Republicans have tried to defang the health care law on more than 40 occasions since it was passed in 2010, but this time, the caucus had momentum and a certain amount of political will on its side. Public outrage has been building over the fact that customers insured through the individual insurance market have been receiving notices from their insurers that their polices have been canceled for failing to meet the standards of Obamacare. During the legislative battle over its passage and the three years since, the president repeatedly assured Americans that if they liked their plans, they could keep them.

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In fact, the Affordable Care Act stipulates only that plans that existed in March 2010 could keep being offered to existing customers, even if the plans didn’t include some of the health care law’s essential requirements, like covering 10 benefit categories and providing preventive care without copayments. In the months leading to full implementation of the ACA, insurance companies canceled thousands of these “grandfathered” plans — 4 million people have been affected, according to a tally by The Associated Press. That has left current customers angry and forced to seek new options in the glitch-ridden online insurance exchanges.

Facing public pressure, Obama announced Thursday that insurance companies could keep selling those plans to existing customers for another year, at their discretion and so long as their state insurance commissions would allow it. In doing so, the president effectively passed off responsibility for cancellation decisions to someone else.

The Upton-sponsored bill goes even further, and would allow insurance companies to sell the old plans to new customers. Opponents of the bill charge that it would deal a death blow to the Affordable Care Act by permitting stripped-down plans that continue to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, age and gender. Some experts also said the fix would cause disruptions in premium prices.

Timothy Jost, a health care policy expert at Washington & Lee University School of Law and a supporter of the ACA, said that changes in the insurance marketplace were expected, but the problems with the HealthCare.gov website have made the transition from the old system to the new even more arduous. Customers booted off their old plans cannot reliably get on the website to look at their new options.

“We always knew there would be winners and losers — the problem is the losers know they’re losing and the winners don’t know yet that they’re winning,” Jost said.

The House debate Friday morning took on familiar contours, with Republicans deriding the law as a wholesale train wreck. Upton, the sponsor of the bill, said that the president would forever be defined by his promise that “if you like your current plan, you can keep it.”

“He did so with the knowledge that it would not be met,” Upton said. "Millions of Americans — including nearly a quarter of a million in Michigan — took the president at his word and now unexpectedly are receiving cancellation notices.”

House Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., added that Obama had no credibility left on health care.

“We will continue to see the shock waves,” he said.

Democratic supporters, meanwhile, mounted a hearty defense, while also arguing that the Upton bill would strip consumers of much-needed protections afforded by Obamacare.  

“I understand the concern of many members that individuals should be able to keep their insurance plans if they like it,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., “but there’s a massive difference between providing relief for those whose policies have been canceled and re-creating the discriminatory, inefficient insurance markets that we had before. What this bill is, is another vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the bill a Trojan horse, “whose underbelly is poisonous in terms of the health and well-being of the American people.”

Other traditional allies of the president laid the blame on the White House for poor communication to the American people and to House Democrats. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., told reporters that he gave the Obama administration “an F-minus” on the rollout.

As the legislative wrangling was taking place, Obama was scheduled to meet Friday afternoon with the CEOs of insurance companies, many of whom expressed displeasure at being thrown the curveball of his administrative fix just as they were finalizing rates and coverage plans for next year. According to the White House, Obama and senior aides will “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.”

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