- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2017

In one of his first actions, President Trump signed an executive order Friday night issuing a government-wide freeze on any new Obamacare regulations, pending a repeal and replacement of the health care law.

Mr. Trump signed the order in the Oval Office, with aides saying it is intended to ease the regulatory burden of the law that was enacted in 2010.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, presenting the document to Mr. Trump at his desk, told reporters that the order would ease “the economic burden” of Obamacare pending repeal.

Health policy analysts said it was difficult to divine where the Obamacare order could lead, though a section of it appeared to target the unpopular “individual mandate” requiring people to gain insurance or pay a tax penalty.

Certain people are exempt from the mandate either because they do not earn enough money or because they fit certain categories — for example, they are in prison, in the country illegally or take care of their own health costs through a faith-based health care ministry.

Still others can qualify for one of 14 “hardship exemptions” issued by the Health and Human Services Department, such as a recent eviction, bankruptcy filing or the death of a close family member, or if they were the victims of domestic violence.

“Probably the biggest step implied by this order would be granting widespread hardship exemptions from the individual mandate penalty, which could create chaos in the individual insurance market,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

The mandate is the law’s main prod to herd healthy people into the marketplace so that sicker customers who can no longer be denied by insurers are balanced out, keeping premiums in check.

Though the tax is $695 or 2.5 percent of qualified income for 2016, the penalty was phased in from a baseline of just $95 in 2014.

Too many people chose to pay a penalty instead of signup under the program. The IRS says 6.1 million paid the Obamacare tax in 2015, while another 12.2 million claimed an exemption to avoid paying the tax or having coverage.

Congressional Republicans say they will repeal Obamacare and replace it with a plans that doles out fixed tax credits and unleashes market forces to entice people into health coverage, instead of relying on heavy federal mandates.

Repealing the mandate before a new plan is in place, however, could cause uncertainty for insurers who participate in the program’s web-based exchanges.

For now, analysts say Mr. Trump’s executive order will serve as a Day One messaging tool.

“What you do through executive orders is give a set policy direction. This doesn’t change anything at this point … It means that we’re moving in a different direction,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who closely tracks the health care debate.

He said it is unlikely that any tangible changes will be made until the Senate confirms Mr. Trump’s pick to lead HHS, Rep. Tom Price, and Seema Verma to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Congressional Republicans praised the order, though at least one left-leaning group called it “meaningless campaign messaging.”

“Rather than stoking anxiety, President Trump should ease the burden on the minds of millions by removing the threat of a partisan rush to repeal the law,” said Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

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