(Bloomberg) -- U.S. health insurers signaled Tuesday that they’re willing to give up a cornerstone provision of Obamacare that requires all Americans to have insurance, replacing it with a different set of incentives less loathed by Republicans who have promised to repeal the law.
Known as the “individual mandate,” the rule was a major priority for the insurance industry when the Affordable Care Act was legislated, and also became a focal point of opposition for Republicans. In a position paper released Tuesday -- the first since President-elect Donald Trump’s victory -- health insurers laid out changes they’d be willing to accept.
“Replacing the individual mandate with strong, effective incentives, such as late enrollment penalties and waiting periods, can help expand coverage and lower costs for everyone,” AHIP said.
That also includes openness to Republican ideas such as an expanded role for health-savings accounts and using so-called high-risk pools to cover sick people. In return, insurers are asking Republicans to create strong incentives to buy insurance, and to ensure the government continues to make good on payments it owes insurers under the ACA. The paper was released by America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP, the main lobby for the industry.
“Millions of Americans depend on their current care and coverage,” AHIP said in the document outlining its positions. The group called on lawmakers to “ensure that people’s coverage -- and lives -- are not disrupted.”
Now that they’re set to gain control of the White House, Republican lawmakers are working to define their vision for replacing the law after years of attempts to repeal it. Obamacare brought insurance coverage to about 20 million people via an expansion of Medicaid and new insurance markets, and repealing the law without a replacement would leave those individuals without coverage.
Trump has said that repealing and then replacing the law will be one of his first priorities. Republicans in Congress, however, have signaled that they’ll need time to write a replacement -- potentially via a years-long delay between passing a repeal and implementing it -- to craft a replacement. And AHIP on Thursday said insurers will need at least 18 months to create new products and get them approved by state regulators, if Republicans change the market. It could take even more time to educate consumers and change state laws, AHIP said.
“It’s taken six years to get where we are now and to demonstrate the failure of Obamacare, so it’s going to take us a little while to fix it,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Republican leadership in the chamber.
Republicans may also make substantial changes to Medicaid, by turning the joint state-federal program into one where the U.S. sends “block grants” to the states, which exert more control. Vice President-elect Mike Pence said on CNN Tuesday that the Trump administration will “develop a plan to block-grant Medicaid back to the states” so they can reform the program. Some Medicaid programs are administered in part by private insurers.
AHIP said any such plans should ensure that payments are adequate to meet the health needs of individuals in Medicaid coverage. And they should ensure that when enrollment increases in an economic downturn, funds are available to help states deal with the increased demand, AHIP said.
AHIP is open to working with Congress on replacement plans for the ACA, said Kristine Grow, a spokeswoman for the lobby group. The document is the first detailed look at AHIP’s priorities.
Big insurers like UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Aetna Inc. are already scaling back from the ACA’s markets, because they’re losing money. At the same time, remaining insurers are boosting premiums by more than 20% on average for next year.
Trump’s election increased the level of uncertainty in the market, and a repeal bill without something to replace the law could destabilize it further. To shore up insurance markets, AHIP says lawmakers should fund a program, known as reinsurance, designed to help insurers with high costs, through the end of 2018, and avoid cutting off cost-sharing subsidies for low-income individuals.
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