- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Acting with bipartisan support, a House committee Wednesday voted to repeal the CLASS Act, part of President Obama’s health care law that the administration has said is unsustainable, but also said it didn’t want to see ended entirely.

Three conservative-leaning Democrats - Reps. Mike Ross of Arkansas, Jim Matheson of Utah and John Barrow of Georgia - broke with their party to support the repeal, which passed the committee 33-17.

While some Democrats have argued for restructuring the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (CLASS) and the White House opposes repealing the program, Republicans insist on scrapping it in its entirety, saying the law would be a long-term drag on the federal budget.

“I believe we have to start over on long-term care reform - an issue that will affect millions of Americans as they or a loved one need care,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “But first, we must erase a program that we know will not work; a program that was never structured to work, and that we could never afford.”

Long headed for troubled waters, CLASS suffered a blow this fall when Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius declared she couldn’t find a way to make the program pay for itself and suspended it indefinitely.

But even with that acknowledgment, the White House said it still didn’t want to see the program repealed from the books.

On Wednesday, some Democrats in the committee said they wanted to see the program remain but be restructured.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey pushed for an independent panel to advise about revamping the program.

A pet project of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, CLASS was envisioned as a way to expand coverage options for those needing continuing care.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a vocal opponent of an effort to repeal CLASS in the Senate led by John Thune, South Dakota Republican, called the committee’s vote “cruel.”

“The CLASS Act may not be perfect, but it’s critical that we find another way to provide long-term care to the 21 million Americans who need it before we repeal this law,” the West Virginia Democrat said.

As officials tried to prove CLASS would be solvent for at least 75 years, they ran into a problem known as adverse selection - a situation in which only those in immediate need of the program sign up for it, leaving it without adequate funding.

Intended to help seniors and those with long-term disabilities, the program offered daily cash benefits of at least $50 to beneficiaries who paid a monthly premium. Because Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care, seniors must purchase a private plan or pay out of pocket until they reach a certain level of poverty to qualify for those services through Medicaid.

The Congressional Budget Office had said the CLASS Act would have raised $86 billion in savings over the next decade as folks paid into it, but would have become a long-term burden as they started to collect benefits in the future.

But once the administration suspended the program earlier this year, CBO said it would no longer assume the $86 billion in savings, making it easier to repeal the program because the lost revenue would no longer have to be replaced under budget rules.

• Paige Winfield Cunningham can be reached at pcunningham@washingtontimes.com.

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