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House Dem: Lawmakers Could 'Move Quickly' on Obamacare Fixes If GOP Drops Repeal

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, participates in a Center for American Progress Action Fund discussion on July 17, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said there were “many things” that President Trump talked about on the campaign trail that “Democrats can agree with” including renegotiating trade deals and addressing the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Despite identifying possible areas of common ground between Democrats and Trump, Pallone criticized both the Trump administration and Congress for trying to “sabotage” Obamacare by not enforcing the individual mandate and preventing improvements to the existing law.

“Look, there were many things, not many, there were a few things that President Trump talked about during his campaign that I think myself and other Democrats can agree with. One was the high price of prescription drugs, another was renewed attention to the negative impacts of trade agreements, not moving on the Trans-Pacific agreement, renegotiating some of the others, major infrastructure initiatives, a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative,” said Pallone last week at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event on efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare and prescription drugs costs.

“Granted, a lot of those have gotten much and the president hasn’t really moved much on them. Well, maybe with the exception of trade, we will see. The jury is still out on that, what he’s actually going to do. But I think there is this notion out there, and I certainly hear it from my colleagues on the Republican side, that we are not doing anything and that they are going to get blamed for not doing anything,” he added.

Pallone said the “essential benefits” portion of Obamacare, which requires insurance companies to sell plans that cover a set of health services in 10 categories, should not be repealed.

“One of the things that got very little attention until the last six months was the essential or guaranteed benefit package, and that was always something that I was very proud of and I would talk about,” he said. “In North Carolina before the ACA, they were selling policies for $15 a month that didn’t include hospitalization. And I would say that isn’t health insurance because North Carolina, unlike my state of New Jersey, didn’t have to guarantee any benefits. You could sell junk insurance.”

Without a set of required essential benefits to offer, Pallone said insurance companies could sell plans to people that do not cover prescription drugs.

“They could theoretically waive prescription drugs or limit in a significant way and you wouldn’t have access to those drugs,” he said.

Pallone, ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to the Obamacare replacement bill would permit insurance companies to sell “junk” healthcare plans that people might not know lacked certain coverage until after they bought them.

“You could get somebody not only buying a policy that didn’t have hospitalization but a policy that didn’t have prescription drugs or, even worse, they say ‘we’re covering prescription drugs’ but there’s a limitation on what they offer, and the bottom line there is people don’t know,” he said. “People bought that North Carolina policy and thought they were getting hospitalization and they didn’t because they didn’t know.”

Pallone acknowledged that some of the health plans sold on the public exchanges through Obamacare have “high deductibles” but there are “limits” in the law that the GOP replacement plan would repeal.

“They are just going to get higher and the co-pays are going to get higher and we don’t know whether the cost-sharing subsidies – even now the president decides on a month-to-month basis whether he’s going to provide them or not – so you know it’s not a good situation,” he said.

Pallone said the Republicans are trying to “sabotage” Obamacare by not allowing Congress to improve it.

“There’s the direct sabotage and then there’s the sabotage because they refuse to allow us to move and make any changes that would improve Obamacare, and that’s ultimately where I hope we go,” he said.

He also lamented efforts not to enforce the individual mandate that requires every American to buy health insurance or pay a penalty to the IRS.

“If people didn’t check the box on their IRS form to indicate whether or not they have health insurance and they just ignored it – and a lot of people knew that that was the case – now the Trump administration is not enforcing it,” he said. “Once you eliminate the mandate, which, of course, both the House and Senate bills do, then I think the marketplace collapses. They are already trying to sabotage the marketplace by not enforcing the mandate.”

Pallone was asked if he thinks there is a chance for a bipartisan “stabilization bill” or a “bipartisan fix” to deal with the rising cost of healthcare coverage. Pallone said he is not sure if the GOP would support “bigger” incentives for states to expand Medicaid but he hopes that would be considered in the future. He said the Democrats would be willing to come to the table if the Republicans declare that the Obamacare repeal effort is over.

“Then I think we could move quickly towards some kind of improvement,” he said. “I think it’s realistic if they drop the repeal and drop the sabotage, but we’re not there yet.”