In a letter to the embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on Friday afternoon, Democrats in the House and Senate who work on health care policy demanded answers about a host of recent HHS decisions—including an abrupt order to all 10 regional offices to stop participating in local open enrollment events.
“We urge you to immediately reconsider and reverse this harmful directive to HHS Regional Offices,” the Democratic committee leaders wrote. “The Trump Administration’s latest effort to sabotage health care will likely lead to additional confusion, creating unnecessary barriers for patients and families seeking to purchase insurance.”
The letter—signed by the top Democrats on the committees on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Finance, Aging, Energy & Commerce, and Ways & Means—lists the many policy changes HHS has made this year that could weaken the Affordable Care Act and discourage people from buying health insurance this November.
In addition to the cancelation of official participation in state enrollment events, which was first reported by Vox and Buzzfeed, the letter points to the Trump administration’s decision to slash the length of open enrollment in half, cut the advertising budget by 90 percent, cut the budget for in-person enrollment help by nearly half, releasing statements blasting the law they are sworn to uphold, and sowing uncertainty by repeatedly toying with cutting off the cost-sharing reduction subsidies low-income patients depend on.
The lawmakers say they are “alarmed,” and are demanding a response to the following questions by October 13:
- Why did HHS direct its Regional Offices not to participate in ACA outreach and enrollment events?
- Did concerns about the budgetary impact of travel have any influence on the directive by HHS to its Regional Offices?
- When was this decision made at HHS headquarters, and by whom? When was it communicated to Regional Offices? When was it communicated to stakeholder groups and/or state, local and tribal governments?
- Given that HHS continues to cut outreach and education programs related to the ACA, how does HHS plan to address consumer education and outreach needs through other channels?
- Is there any precedent for HHS to ban Regional Offices from participation in events related to the programs the Department is statutorily required to administer?
Other Democratic lawmakers are demanding explanations from HHS as well as the first full open enrollment period—crucial to the health of the Affordable Care Act’s individual market—approaches.
On Friday, the Democratic leaders of House Oversight Committee asked HHS to explain why it was shutting down HealthCare.gov for maintenance for 12 hours each Sunday of open enrollment, expressing concern that this would “harm many Americans who are seeking to obtain health insurance to protect themselves and their families.”
A career staffer inside HHS told TPM that the concern around these maintenance times was overblown: that it is the maximum allowable outage time and may not necessarily all be used, and that it is being scheduled from midnight to noon on Sundays because that is a “dead time” for signups.
Former CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt, who ran open enrollment for the Obama administration, disagreed. “With the open enrollment period cut in half, the amount of maintenance is unreasonable—much more than is needed,” he told TPM. “If this were us, we would have one maintenance period, on the weekend of Thanksgiving.”
Read the Democrats’ letter below: