The Obama administration once had a large pot of money to promote the Affordable Care Act and encourage uninsured Americans to enroll.
Under President Trump, however, the Department of Health and Human Services is using the same funds to denounce the beleaguered health insurance program and provide video testimonials from people who say they were hurt by Obamacare.
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Since Tom Price, a former Georgia House member and arch critic of Obamacare, took charge of the agency earlier this year, HHS has produced and released at least 23 online videos showing average Americans, doctors and businessmen who were economically “burdened” by Obamacare.
The Daily Beast reported late last week that funding for those and other anti-ACA videos was coming from the department’s “consumer information and outreach” budget to showcase “victims” of Obamacare and justify efforts by the White House and GOP lawmakers to dismantle the program. The Trump administration requested $574 million for the outreach fund, although the agency declined to divulge how the money was being allocated.
A spokesperson for HHS strongly defended the video campaign as part of the administration’s commitment to reforming the current health care system to bring down the cost of coverage, expand health care choices and strengthen the safety net for generations to come.
“As evidenced by these important and educational testimonials, the status quo has made [those reforms] impossible for millions of Americans,” Alleigh Marre, HHS’s national spokesperson, said in an email.
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HHS officials say they are making legitimate use of appropriated funds to produce the series of videos for the HHS YouTube channel, despite legislative restrictions on the use of federal funds for publicity and propaganda purposes.
But critics including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and advocates for health care coverage complain that the videos are part of a systematic effort by the Trump administration to undermine Obamacare and suppress enrollments.
Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) have been predicting for months that Obamacare would collapse of its own weight because of its soaring premiums and out of pocket costs and a surge in the number of insurers like Humana, UnitedHealthcare, and Aetna that have decided to pull out of the subsidized individual insurance market in some states because of huge losses.
Trump last week blamed the Democrats for the Republicans’ inability to pass repeal and replacement legislation in the Senate and predicted that Democrats would eventually approach the administration with hat in hand after Obamacare finally implodes.
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“I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll let Obamacare fail,” Trump told a group of Republican lawmakers at the White House. “We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you, the Republicans are not going to own it.”
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other independent health care analysts insist that despite some notable problems, the ACA’s insurance market is relatively stable and can continue to function adequately -- provided Congress and the White House put an end to the political turmoil and uncertainty that is driving some insurers out of the market and forcing other to boost their premiums.
However, the HHS video campaign to highlight “victims” of Obamacare is only a small part of the Trump administration overall campaign to literally drive the program into the ground. Here are five other things the administration has done to weaken the ACA:
- During the last sign-up period in late January, the Trump administration pulled HHS advertisements and other on-air outreach to encourage uninsured Americans to sign up for the program. The ads were especially important in attracting younger, healthier people, who typically wait until the last minute to sign up. HHS resumed some of that advertising after ACA advocates complained of cutbacks.
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- Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order instructing HHS and other agencies to take steps to ease the economic impact of Obamacare mandates on individuals and businesses. The Internal Revenue Service responded in February by weakening the health insurance law’s requirement that taxpayers either show proof on their tax returns that they have acquired insurance or pay a tax penalty.
- The administration's proposals also included reducing the annual open enrollment period to about six weeks instead of three months, which would have the overall effect of discouraging enrollments. HHS officials said the change was necessary to reduce the number of people “gaming” the system by purchasing a policy after finding out about a health issue during the lengthy enrollment period.
- Trump has generated consternation within the health insurance market by threatening to kill off a $7 billion a year government cost-sharing subsidy to insurers that enable them to charge lower deductibles and out of pocket costs to low and moderate income people. House Republicans are challenging the subsidy in federal court and so far have won favorable rulings. Trump could effectively defund the subsidies – and drive more insurers out of the market – if he stops an appeal of an adverse lower court ruling.
- Finally, last week the administration canceled contracts to provide assistance to people signing up for health insurance in libraries, businesses and urban neighborhoods in 18 cities, according to the Associated Press.
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Leaders of community groups said that the move will make it even more difficult to enroll uninsured people and re-enroll those already enrolled at a time of great confusion over the future of the health care law.
“There’s a clear pattern of the administration trying to undermine and sabotage the Affordable Care Act,” Elizabeth Hagan, associate director of coverage initiatives for the liberal advocacy group Families USA, told the AP. “It’s not letting the law fail, it’s making the law fail.”