Fight to keep canceled health plans continues in Virginia

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

HEADS UP: Virginia is trying to make sure folks can keep their health care plans.

RICHMOND, Va.—The fight over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare for short — never seems to end.

Virginia’s Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment has introduced two separate bills with the same goal — making sure heath insurance companies can continue health insurance plans otherwise discontinued by President Obama’s signature health care law.

SB 5013 and SB 5014 would put legislative weight to Obama administration rules that extend health insurance carriers’ ability to offer otherwise canceled plans, as long as state leaders allow it, through 2016 — a presidential election year. Originally, the offer was only extended through October, right before the midterm elections.

It isn’t the first push from state-level Republicans to curb the effects of some of the more unsavory parts of the law on Virginians. Still, news earlier this fall that a quarter of a million Virginia policy holders — more than a quarter of a million Virginians — would get cancelation notices by the end of the year has renewed their efforts.

“Of course, people were promised if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan,” state Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesbur), who signed on as one of a handful of co-patrons to one of Norment’s bills, told Watchdog.org. “That was actually a bold-faced lie. There never was any truth to it. But because of the pressures, the act has been enormously unpopular with the public. I’m not sure if there’s any precedent for a major piece of legislation being unpopular with the public.”

“And so you see all these waivers keeping the act from actually taking effect,” Black added. “I think CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) is just reacting to public anger over the Affordable Care Act and the fact that people are realizing they were lied to.”

Black helped Republicans strip funding from any possible expansion of Medicaid, crippling Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who campaigned on expanding the government health care program last year — from using his executive authority to do so.

Norment was not available for comment on Monday during a special legislative session, nor was Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans.

Open enrollment in the federal health exchange is just days away — Saturday, to be specific. The federal government failed to release premium costs for 2015 before last week’s elections.

About 200,000 Virginians chose to enroll in plans last year through the ACA. According to Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel, Medicaid applications — even though Virginia lawmakers chose not to expand the program — surged by 60 during ACA enrollment.

On Monday, the Obama administration announced it is expecting significantly lower health-care enrollment number than previous predictions.

The news comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday announce that it will be taking up a case involving the crux of the ACA — the government subsidies designed to help the vast majority of ACA enrollees afford their plans.

“Now the Supreme Court is taking up the issue of essentially whether Obamacare can even work in states that have refused to have their own exchanges,” Black said.

That would, of course, include Virginia.

Like last year, the federal government is doing all it can to raise awareness. CMS is giving $1.3 million in “navigator” grants to the nonprofit Virginia Poverty Law Center, and more than $600,000 to the for-profit Advanced Patient Advocacy LLC, to help enroll Virginians in the federal exchange and Medicaid before 2015. The feds gave both groups, which support expansion, grants last year, too.

A May CNN poll showed Americans want reform of the law. Only 12 percent of those surveyed said they want Congress to leave it alone, while 49 percent said they want some changes in the law. Another 18 percent of those surveyed said they wanted it repealed and replaced, and 20 percent wanted to repeal it and go back to the old health care insurance system.

“I don’t believe in the government running health care,” Black said. “So wherever we can delay it, wherever we can trip it up, I want to do that.”

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached on Twitter @kathrynw5.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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