Clinical Review

The Affordable Care Act, closing in on a decade

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Under Congress

Republicans held the majority in both chambers of the 115th Congress (2017–2018), and hoped to use their majority status to get an ACA repeal bill to the Republican President’s desk for speedy enactment. It was not easy, and they were not successful. Four major bills—the American Health Care Act, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Health Care Freedom Act, and the Graham-Cassidy Amendment—never made it over the finish line, with some not even making it to a vote. The Health Care Freedom Act was voted down in the Senate 51-49 when Senator John McCain came back from brain surgery to cast his famous thumbs-down vote.4 These bills all would have repealed or hobbled guaranteed issue, community rating, and essential health benefits of the ACA. Of all the legislative attempts to undermine the ACA, only the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law, repealing the ACA individual mandate.

Handling by the courts

The TCJA gave ACA opponents their opening in court. Twenty Republican state attorneys general and governors brought suit in February 2018 (Texas v Azar), arguing that because the ACA relies on the mandate, and the mandate has been repealed, the rest of the ACA also should be struck down. A federal district judge agreed, on December 15, 2018, declaring the entire ACA unconstitutional.5

That decision has been limited in its practical effect so far, and maybe it was not altogether unexpected. What was unexpected was that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) refused to defend a federal law, in this case, the ACA. In June 2018, the DOJ declined to defend the individual mandate, as well as guaranteed issue, community rating, the ban on preexisting condition exclusions, and discrimination based on health status in the ACA. The DOJ at that time, however, did not agree with the plaintiffs that without the mandate the entire ACA should be struck down. It said, “There is no reason why the ACA’s particular expansion of Medicaid hinges on the individual mandate.” Later, after the December 15 ruling, the DOJ changed its position and agreed with the judge, in a two-sentence letter to the court, that the ACA should be stricken altogether—shortly after which 3 career DOJ attorneys resigned.6

A legal expert observed: “The DOJ’s decision not to defend the ACA breaks with the Department’s long-standing bipartisan commitment to defend federal laws if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense. Decisions not to defend federal law are exceedingly rare. It seems even rarer to change the government’s position mid-appeal in such a high-profile lawsuit that risks disrupting the entire health care system and health insurance coverage for millions of Americans.”7

Regulatory tactics

What a policy maker cannot do by law, he or she can try to accomplish by regulation. The Administration is using 3 regulatory routes to undercut the ACA preexisting coverage protections and market stability.

Route 1: Short-Term Limited Duration (STLD) plans. These plans were created in the ACA to provide bridge coverage for up to 3 months for individuals in between health insurance plans. These plans do not have to comply with ACA patient protections, can deny coverage for preexisting conditions, and do not cover maternity care. In 2018, the Administration moved to allow these plans to be marketed broadly and renewed for up to 3 years. Because these plans provide less coverage and often come with high deductibles, they can be marketed with lower premiums, skimming off healthier younger people who do not expect to need much care, as well as lower-income families. This destabilizes the market and leaves people insured but not covered, exactly the situation before the ACA. Seven public health and medical groups sued to challenge the Administration’s STLD regulation; the lawsuit is presently pending.

Continue to: Route 2: Association Health Plans (AHPs)...

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