A new report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services shines a light on the Trump administration’s decision to cut outreach during the final days of the last open enrollment period in January.
The report released Wednesday, based on interviews with both Trump appointees at CMS, career staffers, and internal documents, found the “beachhead” team the Trump administration installed at HHS just after the inauguration verbally ordered the cancelation of all outreach regarding Obamacare’s marketplace enrollment on Jan. 26—just a few days before the enrollment deadline.
“An official from CCIIO reported that he contacted an official on the HHS Beachhead Team with concerns that the cancellation of outreach could have potential negative effects on the risk pool for the individual market,” the IG report noted.
Later that afternoon, the instruction were amended, and staffers were told “to cancel only certain outreach activities and indicated that the goal was to save money.” At the time, however, HHS said publicly that its purpose for cutting outreach was that it did not want to continue “promoting a failed government program.” The IG report notes that the department was not only ordered to cancel costly outreach methods like TV ads, but “earned media (i.e., interviews on radio and satellite media tours), social media, and low-cost activities that would support CMS’s outreach efforts.”
Later that same evening, after learning that HHS would be charged a penalty for canceling some of the outreach programs they had already contracted and paid for, the department sent contractors updated instructions to “(1) resume certain outreach, such as low-cost activities; (2) cancel only paid outreach that would result in cost savings; and (3) continue any paid advertising which was not refundable or had penalties exceeding potential savings.” However, it was too late to undo some of the cancelations, and HHS lost about $1.1 million in outreach it had already paid for.
The inspector general said it was “unable to determine conclusively what factors were considered in making the decision” to cancel outreach during the crucial final days of open enrollment.
The two Senate Democrats who requested the investigation, however, said the findings show that “the decision appears to be purely political in nature.”
“The HHS IG report shows that the Trump Administration came into office with one goal: to sabotage the Affordable Care Act,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). “The cancellation of these ads was malicious and destructive, and it wasted over $1 million in taxpayers’ money. This was a blatantly political decision, with no regard for its impact on American families and their access to affordable healthcare.”
While the report found that HHS and CMS “have not analyzed how the cancellations affected Marketplace enrollment,” outside analysts estimate that the cuts depressed health insurance enrollment by half a million people.
Read the full report below:
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.