39 Dems Help GOP Pass Insurance Cancellation Bill
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The Fiscal Times
November 15, 2013

The House on Friday ignored a presidential veto threat and approved a Republican plan aimed at reversing the cancellation of millions of individual health insurance plans that don’t meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans insisted that their bill offered the best hope for many confused and irate Americans to reclaim their cancelled policies and make good on President Obama’s pledge that people who liked their current health plans could keep them. But the White House and many congressional Democrats denounced the bill as a “Trojan horse” designed to undermine the underlying Obamacare program.

Related: 4 Things the White House Still Hasn’t Told Us about Obamacare

Even so, 39 Democrats joined with 222 Republicans to pass the bill, 261 to 157. President Obama managed to prevent even more defections among jittery Democrats seeking political cover by announcing on Thursday that he would urge insurers to extend the cancelled policies for one year without penalties. 

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, a 19-term veteran from a purple House district in West Virginia who is under attack by the conservative Americans for Prosperity for supporting Obamacare,  voted for the Republican bill, as did Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida, where the local Blue Cross plan sent out 300,000 cancellation notices.

Other Democratic defectors largely came from  moderate to conservative districts, including Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, John Barrow of Georgia and Ami Bera of California. Other Democrats who voted with the GOP included Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon,  John Garamendi of California, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois,  Dan Maffei of New York, and Minnesotans Rick Nolan, Tim Walz and Colin Peterson.

Obama’s concession on cancelled policies and his repeated apologies for botching the rollout of his signature health insurance program were aimed in part at quelling a bipartisan push for legislative action that might pose even more headaches for the troubled health insurance program.

Earlier this week, GOP sponsors of the bill thought they might pick up 50 or more Democratic votes. 

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the chief sponsor,  said  that Obama intended to “sit on his hands” and do nothing until he saw that Upton’s bill might attract as many as 300 votes overall. Only then did the president make his announcement, 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,” said Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “They’re confused, worried and upset. . . For millions of Americans, it’s cancellation today and sticker shock tomorrow.”

Unlike the president’s one-year proposed solution, Upton’s bill would allow insurance companies to continue indefinitely to offer the types of policies they recently canceled. The White House fears that the bill, if enacted, would undercut the new Obamacare standards and make the old policies available to new enrollees as well as to current ones.

Related: If Obama Keeps His Promise, Premiums Could Go Sky High

But opponents said the Upton bill was simply the latest in a long series of Republican efforts to gut Obamacare and should be rejected.

“This bill is not a bill to let people keep their health insurance plans,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). “The president took care of that yesterday. This bill is another vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It would take away the core protections of that law. This bill creates an entire shadow market of substandard health care plans.”

“It will destabilize the health insurance exchanges, raise premiums and continue to allow insurers to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions,” Waxman added.

House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) dismissed the Upton plan as a “Trojan horse” designed to destroy the already troubled Obamacare program. “This bill is offered by people who according to their own rhetoric want to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

House Democrats said the closed-door briefing with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough on Thursday had stopped the Democratic bleeding — on this specific measure at least, according to Politico. They said McDonough had assured them that the administrative fix to Obamacare would allow people to keep their health plans, as Obama had promised.

However, a handful of Senate Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns next year are pressing for a legislative solution with more teeth in it than the president’s non-binding administrative directive to insurers and state insurance commissioners.

Related: Democrats Dive for Cover amid Obamacare Debacle

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has unveiled a proposal to require insurers to continue offering insurance plans that existed this year, even if it means reinstating plans that were canceled because they didn’t meet Obamacare requirements. The bill would only include policies purchased before Dec. 31, 2013. It would also require insurers to provide policyholders with information annually reminding them that their current plans do not meet the new minimum coverage standards as well as information on how they can find better value coverage on the exchanges.

Insurers say that this bill, like the president’s plan, is problematic because it’s already too late to retract the cancellations that have gone out. Others caution the bill would cause premiums to rise, since healthy people would be able to stay on the old plans, denying to the exchanges the people needed to balance out the costs to cover sick Americans.

So far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has shown no interest in bringing a health care fix bills to the floor.

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 This article was updated at 4:48 p.m.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.