- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

House Republicans and the Trump administration begged a federal court Tuesday for more time to figure out how to settle a thorny Obamacare case, now that the GOP stands to be blamed for any new hiccups in the health law.

The House Republicans had won a ruling last year that President Obama was breaking the law by making payments to insurance companies even though Congress had specifically canceled that money.

The Trump administration could easily drop the appeal, but the White House and Republicans now realize they may have to keep the payments flowing until they figure out how to smoothly transition away from Affordable Care Act to their own plans. The cash had still been flowing while the Obama administration appeals the federal district court’s ruling.

Attorneys for the House GOP and Justice Department told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit they would like to keep that arrangement while they iron out their replacement plans. They said they will update the court on their progress in late May.

“The House and Department of Justice filed a motion seeking more time to continue efforts to resolve the lawsuit without the court’s assistance,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

A spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said the request for more time was the latest signal that the GOP was waging a political battle.

“That they haven’t dropped their lawsuit is further proof that their political game is more important than the health care of the American people,” spokeswoman Caroline Behringer said. “House Republicans should climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves, drop their lawsuit and stop risking a complete collapse of the health insurance marketplace.”

Congressional Republicans made repeal of Obamacare their top priority this year, but efforts to replace the 2010 overhaul at the same time have put them behind schedule. That’s led to vocal pressure from both liberals, who want to preserve the law, and conservatives who were promised a swift and total repeal.

In the meantime, the Trump administration has moved to stabilize the Obamacare marketplace, hoping to give insurers some certainty about 2018.

But a disruption to the cost-sharing payments at issue in the House lawsuit could spoil things.

Millions of Obamacare customers with incomes between 100 percent and 250 percent of poverty rely on the payments, and health plans are required to reduce their out-of-pocket costs whether they’re reimbursed or not.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main lobbying group for insurers, has urged Congress not to mess with the payments during the handoff to a GOP-preferred health system.

“Every American deserves access to affordable coverage and high-quality care — and cost-sharing reductions help millions of Americans get the care and coverage they need,” AHIP spokeswoman Kristine Grow said Tuesday. “They are a critical part of ensuring short-term stability of the market. We look forward to a positive, long-term resolution so that plans can look to 2018 with greater clarity and greater certainty.”

Even Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus demanding swift repeal of Obamacare, recently said he could stomach an extension of the payments so long as the GOP has a game plan for getting rid of Mr. Obama’s reforms.

“I would be more flexible, and could swallow some short-term heartburn, for longer-term fiscal responsibility and lower health care costs for people I represent,” he said during a reporters’ roundtable at the conservative Heritage Foundation this month.

Mr. Ryan recently said the GOP will take up legislation to gut Obamacare and begin replacing it in the coming weeks, after lawmakers return from their February recess.

The House GOP released an outline of its plans, which would replace Obamacare’s exchanges and income-based subsidies with tax credits based on age, so people who do not get insurance through a job or government insurance program have a shot at affording private coverage of their choosing.

It would also scale down generous federal funding for states that opted to expand their Medicaid populations, while allowing people to pour more money in tax-advantaged savings accounts that can be used for medical expenses.

Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the left-leaning Centers for American Progress, said Tuesday’s plea for time, however, suggests the GOP is struggling to replace Obamacare with something that’s adequate for low-income Americans.

“It shows that they are worried about the effects of their policies, but they haven’t figured out yet that health savings accounts are no replacement for the cost-sharing subsidies,” he said. “How is expanding a tax shelter for the wealthy going to help lower-income people pay the higher deductibles under their plan?”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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