- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Trump administration confirmed Wednesday it will make critical Obamacare payments to insurers for August — one day after congressional scorekeepers outlined the long-term risks of cutting off the contested reimbursements.

The decision will allow insurers to breathe easier in the coming weeks, although companies say they’d like to see President Trump commit to the “cost-sharing reductions” for a longer period, at least through next year.

The payments reimburse plans for picking up about 6 million low-income customers’ costs on the Affordable Care Act’s web-based exchanges. Participating insurers must pay customers’ costs whether or not they’re reimbursed by the government, so their bottom lines are at stake.

President Trump has suggested he would suspend the payments to speed Obamacare’s demise, while other times he’s signaled he would hold the payments hostage to try to force Democrats to the table to renegotiate President Obama’s signature health law.

“After threats by President Trump and his administration to end cost-sharing reduction payments have already rattled consumers and the health care market, we are glad the administration is making these crucial payments to help lower out-of-pocket costs and increase deductibles for August,” said Leslie Dach, campaign director for Protect Our Care, a coalition that rallied to Obamacare’s defense in recent months. “However, this cat-and-mouse game every month has to stop.”

The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said cutting off the payments would send premiums soaring by 20 percent next year as health companies scramble to make up for the loss of taxpayer money.

CBO analysts also said taxpayers would be forced to pay nearly $200 billion more in the coming decade if Mr. Trump axes the payments because the government would have to pay more in subsidies to cover the higher rates paid by customers.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, praised the administration’s decision to keep the money flowing for now. Yet he thinks Congress should approve the payments through 2018 as part of a market stabilization he will present to his panel in September.

He also wants Congress to give states more flexibility under an Obamacare waiver program that allows states to experiment with their own systems of coverage after Senate Republicans failed to produce a bill that would repeal and replace Obamacare.

“These two actions will help make insurance policies available at affordable prices. Congress owes struggling Americans who buy their insurance in the individual market a breakthrough in the health care stalemate,” Mr. Alexander said.

The payments have been at the heart of a Capitol Hill spat stretching back to Obamacare’s early years, when President Obama made the cost-sharing payments over the objections of Congress, which specifically cut the money out of the budget.

House Republicans took Mr. Obama to court in 2015, and a federal judge has ruled the payments illegal — though she stayed her ruling while the case is on appeal.

Democrats say congressional Republicans could solve the entire issue by appropriating the money.

But many conservatives say that would amount to a “bailout” for insurers who signed on with Mr. Obama’s law. They’re loath to front the money unless it is part of a clear transition from Obamacare to a GOP-favored health care plan.

Without the payments, CBO said some insurers would drop out of the marketplace, leaving about 5 percent of the population without any options on the exchanges.

Analysts said the number of uninsured would increase by 1 million in 2018, mainly due to insurers dropping out of the marketplace.

But the dynamic reverses itself in later years. The number of Americans lacking insurance would be 1 million lower in each year starting in 2020 as the exchanges become more attractive to certain consumers who could leverage rising subsidies into a better deal, according to the CBO.

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