House GOP Seeks To Trap Dems On Preexisting Conditions

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House Republicans have set up a Wednesday vote on legislation designed to simultaneously undermine a piece of Obamacare and give themselves a pretext to say they’re interested in helping people with preexisting conditions.

The Helping Sick Americans Now Act would siphon $3.6 billion from the Affordable Care Act’s $10 billion prevention and public health fund, aimed at combating disease and promoting wellness, into an underfunded short-term plan to cover people with preexisting conditions until 2014, when the law will begin to ban insurers from denying coverage based on health status.

But the legislation doesn’t reflect a serious long-term effort to address the problem of sick Americans lacking access to health care or getting thrown off their insurance plan. It would shore up a costly and temporary high-risk pool under Obamacare — called the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan — which expires at the end of 2013. Beyond that, Republicans continue to support repealing the rest of the Affordable Care Act, and lack economically feasible plans to address preexisting conditions.

“Like in so many other areas, the President’s health care legislation failed to adequately protect sick patients with pre-existing conditions, like those battling cancer,” said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). “House Republicans are determined to do so by taking funding from a slush fund and moving it where it is critically needed.”

House Republicans are exploiting a political opportunity created by the Department of Health and Human Services’ February decision to end new enrollment in the ACA’s state-based high risk pools, after determining that it was underfunded. HHS said at the time that it was “the most prudent step” considering the program’s $5 billion spending limit and need to ensure coverage for those already enrolled. In March, House GOP leaders sent a letter calling on President Obama support moving money from the prevention fund to PCIP.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) described the bill as a “continuing effort to undermine the Affordable Care Act” and observed that it was “reported out of committee on a totally partisan vote — no Democrat voted for it.”

“We don’t think much of this bill,” he said. “It is a zero sum game and undermines a fund that we think is very important, and may not serve very many people but may hurt a lot of people.”

The White House threatened to veto the legislation Tuesday night, arguing that the prevention fund serves important purposes such as preventing diseases, detecting them early, managing conditions before they become severe and promoting wellness.

Conservative groups are split on the legislation, torn between competing desires to mess with Obamacare and to avoid spending taxpayer funds to insure sick people.

FreedomWorks supports it, explaining that it “effectively cannibalizes ObamaCare to impede its implementation.” Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group also backs the bill.

But Club For Growth opposes it and is scoring lawmaker votes, warning that it would “further extend the federal government’s role in healthcare” and encourage people to avoid buying insurance until they get sick — a familiar conservative complaint about public health insurance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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