With all the skill of a surgeon wielding a machete, President Trump signed an executive order today that could undermine the affordability and quality of health insurance in America. Republicans in Congress couldn’t enact their ill-considered legislation to repeal Obamacare, so the President hastily reached for his pen, despite admitting earlier this year that he had no idea “healthcare could be so complicated.”
The executive order instructs Trump’s cabinet agencies to look at ways to allow insurers to sell health policies across state lines. The aim is to open-up association health plans (currently covering employees of various businesses and organizations) to people in the individual market. These insurance policies would not be subject to Obamacare rules mandating coverage for pre-existing conditions or essential benefits, in theory making them cheaper – but also skimpier.
These lower-cost, bare bones plans could siphon off younger and healthier enrollees, leaving older and sicker patients in the Obamacare exchanges and driving up their premiums. Ultimately, this could result in a death spiral for Obamacare, as we discussed on today’s Behind the Headlines Facebook Live broadcast. The administration’s own Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says on its website:
Older Americans between ages 55 and 64 are at particular risk: 48 to 86 percent of people in that age bracket have some type of pre-existing condition.
To some, the idea of selling insurance across state lines sounds appealing. (Republicans have been proposing this scheme in one form or another since 2005.) Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been pushing it hard this year. But evidence – and history – indicate that the idea doesn’t work. This Kaiser Health News video briefly and crisply explains why.
Not only does the selling-across-state-lines concept undermine important patient protections and drive up premiums for the most vulnerable, it has never proven viable for insurers or the insured. According to today’s Hill newspaper:
A few states have opened their borders to out-of-state health insurers, and the response has been a uniform, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
One of Obamacare’s architects, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, told CNN today that, in addition to other concerns, association health plans have a “checkered history” and are especially vulnerable to fraud and scam artists. “Hundreds of thousands of people could be affected by fraud, unreimbursed medical bills,” he warned. Emanuel also cautioned that patients with employer-provided insurance could see their rates rise “significantly.”
The biggest problem of all, though, is that Trump’s executive order may well be illegal. The New York Times reports:
Several experts in healthcare and employment law said Trump’s plan could violate the U.S. Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a federal law that governs large group plans that must be provided or maintained by employers or employee organizations.
In fact, a coterie of Democratic states attorneys general are poised to sue the administration if it enacts these harmful changes.
For all the Republicans’ talk of federalism, the executive order would actually weaken states’ power to regulate insurance markets, which is one of their primary responsibilities in the health care arena.
But as with the President’s trickle-down tax plan and other haphazard policies, history, precedent and data don’t seem to matter to this White House. That’s especially troubling when – once again – the most vulnerable members of society will pay the price.