Alice Ollstein

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.

Articles by Alice

When Trump administration’s senior HHS staff unveiled a draft rule this week that would expand the sale of cheap, skimpy, short-term health plans, they described it as a “lifeline” for the currently uninsured, and insisted the rule change won’t destabilize Obamacare’s individual market.

The department’s move is just the latest in a lengthy series of administrative actions that have destabilized and chipped away at the Affordable Care Act, including repealing of the individual mandate, cutting the length of open enrollment in half and slashing funding for outreach and assistance, making it easier for states to cull their Medicaid enrollees, and cutting off CSR subsidies that offset the cost of insuring low-income individuals.

While Obamacare’s individual mandate was still in place, those who chose a cheap, short-term, non-ACA plan still had to pay the tax penalty. With that barrier removed next year, the introduction of the skimpy plans could upend the health care marketplace.

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The Trump administration’s “death by 1,000 cuts” strategy against the Affordable Care Act took a step forward Tuesday morning with a proposal from HHS to allow insurers to sell skimpy short-term plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s rules. When finalized, this rule could create a parallel market where insurers can once again turn away people with preexisting conditions, charge sicker people higher premiums, and refuse to cover services as basic as emergency room visits and prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, as the rollback of federal oversight and regulation continues, Idaho is emerging as the state most determined to test how far the administration will allow it to go in flouting the rules that remain. The state recently moved to allow insurers to sell cheap plans that don’t meet the ACA’s minimum standards. Speculation that no insurer would actually offer these bare-bones plans for fear of being sued was put to rest this past week when one of the biggest companies in the state’s market—Blue Cross of Idaho—announced it would begin offering these plans this year. The state is allowing insurers to exclude coverage of maternity care, put a lifetime limit on a patient’s expenses, and charge people higher premiums if they have a preexisting condition—all policies that violate the ACA.

Newly sworn in HHS Secretary Alex Azar has so far signaled he is unlikely to crack down on Idaho. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last week, he said only that his agency would scrutinize the state’s move, which he called “a cry for help.” Health law professor Nicholas Bagley has another term for it: “Crazypants illegal.”

Some states, however, may be moving in the opposite direction. After a blue wave election in Virginia, those who have fought for years for the state to expand Medicaid see signs of hope. The state budget released this past week by the House of Delegates would expand Medicaid to an additional 300,000 people. The Republican-controlled state Senate, however, did not include Medicaid expansion in its budget, setting up a potential clash between the two chambers. The House’s plan may also be a tough sell for progressives because it would require Medicaid beneficiaries to work or attend job training and pay premiums.

Obamacare’s individual mandate will end next year, and federal offices are clashing over just how many people will drop or lose their insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office initially estimated that 13 million more people would either voluntarily or involuntarily go uninsured over the next decade as a result of the mandate’s repeal. But a report from HHS’ Office of the Actuary forecasts only 4 million newly uninsured people. The main discrepancy between the two estimates revolves around the question of whether people who qualify for significant federal subsidies or entirely free Medicaid coverage will stay enrolled once the mandate’s tax penalty disappears.

As I wrote late last year, Congress steered the country into uncharted waters when it repealed the mandate. The exact nature of the fallout won’t be known for years to come.

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The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services released a draft rule Tuesday morning allowing insurance companies to sell skimpy short-term health plans that don’t comply with the Affordable Care Act’s regulations. These plans, which currently can only be used for three months, will now be allowed up to a year, and will be allowed to turn away people with pre-existing conditions or charge them higher premiums.

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When the final gavel came down Thursday afternoon, marking the Senate’s failure to pass any one of four immigration bills up for debate, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) left the chamber with a spring in his step.

Asked by reporters what Congress will do now for nearly 700,000 young immigrants at risk of losing their work permits and legal protections after March 5, the anti-immigration hardliner grinned and replied: “We move on to confirming judges and banking reform.”

But many other senators on both sides of the aisle say Congress should and must keep trying to find a solution for the DACA program President Trump terminated last year, and pointed to a few possible avenues to create a new bill from the ashes of the four voted down on Thursday.

Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the House of Representatives are whipping a bill even further to the right than President Trump’s which may not even pass the House and would be dead on arrival in the Senate, while ignoring calls from Democrats to follow the Senate in holding a series of votes on competing bipartisan plans. Looming over the legislative scramble are federal courts, which could decide at any moment the fate of President Trump’s attempt to end the DACA program, and President Trump himself, who may for a second time torpedo Congress’ hopes of passing a bill by threatening a veto.

Trump signaled his disinterest in working toward a solution Friday morning, releasing a statement slamming “the Schumer Democrats” for the failed votes and characterizing the minority party whose votes he needs to pass any bill as “the open border fringe.” 

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Early Monday morning, after President Trump reportedly spent the weekend watching the moving television appearances of the young survivors of last week’s deadly school shooting, the White House announced that Trump was encouraging senators to revive a stalled bill to modestly strengthen background checks for gun purchases.

“The President spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bi-partisan bill he and Sen. Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background check Legislation,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system.”

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On Wednesday night, a group of Republican and Democratic senators nailed down a difficult compromise on immigration that has been weeks in the making—a bill that provides a 12-year path to citizenship for young immigrants known as Dreamers, allocates the full $25 billion President Trump has demanded for the U.S.-Mexico border, bans the parents of DACA recipients from ever receiving citizenship, and bars legal permanent residents from sponsoring their adult, unmarried children.

But before the bill could even come to the floor for an expected vote Thursday, the Trump administration was working to undermine it.

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Senate Republican leaders are only giving the chamber Wednesday and Thursday to pass an immigration bill that would help the 700,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers whose protections President Trump terminated last year. As lawmakers scramble to whip votes on a growing pile of competing proposals and are frantically negotiating behind closed doors, the White House has once again thrown a wrench into the process.

In a statement Wednesday morning, President Trump suggested, as he did two weeks ago, that he would veto any plan other than a GOP-sponsored bill based on his own list of demands, including controversial provisions slashing legal immigration.

“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars – that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” he said, referring to discussions in Congress about a one-year punt should all other options fail to pass.

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As of late Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had yet to even begin a long-awaited debate on immigration. Hanging in the balance are the lives of 700,000 young DACA recipients who will soon lose their work permits and protection from deportation.

What lawmakers originally expected to be a robust, freewheeling, open debate on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals on the table is currently at a standstill, held up by partisan disagreements about which policy to vote on first.

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