Behind Closed Doors

By: Brady C. Bizarro, Esq.

Anyone paying attention to national politics in the past six months knows that Washington has a problem with leaks; leaks from the White House, leaks from the intelligence community, and unsurprisingly, leaks from Capitol Hill. While many of these leaks come from “anonymous” sources and some are later debunked, they can be extremely damaging to both administration officials and lawmakers. Leaks, however, are not typically an issue in the legislative process. This is because, although legislation is not usually made public until it reaches a congressional committee, Congress routinely holds public hearings, meetings, and roundtable discussions after introducing legislation that could have a significant impact on domestic policy. This time around, however, Republican leaders have chosen to write their health care bill behind closed doors, and that decision should worry employers, insurers, and providers alike.

Back in March, the Washington Post reported that the House bill to repeal and replace Obamacare was being kept secret in an undisclosed room in the U.S. Capitol. This led Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) on a rather public quest to find the bill and to demand that his House colleagues show him the secret draft. Eventually, a draft leaked to the press, causing Republicans significant grief and making the task of passing the legislation that much more difficult. The Senate has also chosen secrecy, opting not to hold any public meetings on their version of a repeal and replace bill. The strategy seems to be to wait until the Senate has enough votes to pass the bill before unveiling it. Unsurprisingly, an outline of that bill emerged last week and is now causing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) many headaches.

According to the leaked outline, the Senate bill requires insurance companies to offer coverage to people with preexisting conditions and, unlike the House bill, it prohibits them from charging sick people higher premiums. The outline still permits states to seek waivers that would permit insurers to decide not to cover essential health benefits. This effectively means that insurers can reinstate lifetime and annual limits on coverage since the ban on limits applies only to essential health benefits. Finally, the outline reveals that heavy cuts to Medicaid are still planned, but are pushed out a few more years. In short, these changes represent a compromise between hardline conservatives who want a full repeal of Obamacare and moderate Republicans who are concerned about the impact on low-income Americans and those with pre-existing conditions.

Since we do not know for sure what the final bill will look like, it is futile to try to assess its impact on the health care industry as a whole and on the self-insurance industry in particular. Still, one conclusion we can draw is that the legislative strategy at play is creating substantial uncertainty for our industry. When the Affordable Care Act was being passed, Democrats held public hearings involving industry experts, advocacy groups, and other key stakeholders. While the bill was far from perfect, at least interest groups got the chance to give their input and to discuss their concerns in an open forum. By writing their health care reform bill behind closed doors, Republicans are making themselves susceptible to leaks and to charges that they shut key stakeholders out of the process. It remains to be seen if this strategy is more or less likely to produce a bill that works for the health insurance industry and the American people.