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Politics

GOP insurance standard passes House

House Speaker John Boehner delivered remarks on Thursday about the Affordable Care Act.

EPA/file

House Speaker John Boehner delivered remarks on Thursday about the Affordable Care Act.

WASHINGTON — Defying a veto threat from President Barack Obama, the House on Friday approved legislation that would allow health insurance companies to renew individual insurance policies and sell similar policies to new customers next year even if the coverage does not provide all the benefits and consumer protections required by the new health care law.

The vote was 261-157, with 39 Democrats bucking their party leadership to vote in favor of the bill.

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The legislation would go further than the fix announced Thursday by Obama, who said he would temporarily waive some requirements of the law and allow insurers to renew “current policies for current enrollees.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chief sponsor of the House bill, said his legislation would fulfill a promise that Obama had made to the American people and then broken.

“In the last three years,” Upton said, “the president personally promised that, if people liked their current health care plan, they could keep it ‘no matter what.’ But cancellation notices are now arriving in millions of mailboxes across the country. It’s cancellation today, sticker shock tomorrow.”

Upton, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, belittled Obama’s proposal, saying that it had been offered at the last minute, “as the administration’s allies in Congress panicked.”

Senior Democrats criticized the Upton legislation as a ploy that could unravel the entire health care law.

“Don’t pretend you care about the American people’s health care here,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. “You just want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are not going to let you do that.”

The outlook for the legislation is unclear in the Senate, where Democrats running for re-election in 2014 are looking for a way to help consumers facing the loss of insurance policies that do not meet requirements of the 2010 law.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., was one of the first Democrats to break with the White House and offer her own plan, which would allow people to keep their current plans indefinitely. However, after the president’s turnabout Thursday, many Senate Democrats said they were waiting to see whether additional legislation was necessary, and quick action in the Senate is not expected.

With the House debating the measure, Obama and his top aides were to meet with insurance company executives at the White House in an effort to quell concerns about the implications of the president’s plan.

The insurance industry had reacted with alarm to Obama’s announcement Thursday, saying that the decision to change the rules about who could keep insurance plans had the potential to undermine the Affordable Care Act and raise premiums.

“This decision continues different rules for different policies and threatens to undermine the new market, and may lead to higher premiums and market disruptions in 2014 and beyond,” Jim Donelon, Louisiana’s insurance regulator and the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, said Thursday.

House Democrats on Friday used a procedural maneuver to offer a plan of their own called “Landrieu lite,” intended to build upon the president’s fix and offer their members additional political cover. The Democratic proposal, which was rejected by Republicans, would have allowed people who like their current plans to retain them for an additional year. Unlike with Upton’s bill, however, insurers would not be allowed to sell plans that previously faced cancellation to new customers.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, said insurers should be allowed to sell new policies like those now in force because it was extremely difficult for consumers to obtain coverage through the federal website, HealthCare.gov.

But Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Upton’s bill was an attempt to “drag us back to the bad old days of the American health care system.” It would, he said, allow insurers to sell “cut-rate shoddy policies that lack the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act.”

The House vote came as Obama struggles to extricate himself from a political crisis of his own making. Opinion polls indicate that he is losing the trust of many Americans because of his handling of the health law rollout and the debut of the insurance website, which has been paralyzed by technological failures.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said Upton’s bill “pulls the plug on the Affordable Care Act.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the Upton bill would provide relief to some people hurt by the president’s health care overhaul.

“The American people have grown weary of this administration spending money that it does not have on programs the American people do not want,” Blackburn said. “The president’s health care law is a great example.”

The White House said Obama would veto the House bill if it got to him. The bill, the administration said, would reverse progress made in extending coverage to the uninsured.

The House bill says that, if an insurer was providing coverage in the individual market on Jan. 1 of this year, it “may continue” to offer such coverage for sale next year in the market outside the new insurance exchanges.

People who choose to buy or renew these policies in 2014 would be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement to have insurance, so they would not be subject to tax penalties for violating the individual mandate.

Insurance executives say that the premiums in the new federal and state marketplaces were based on the assumption that younger and generally healthy people who had been enrolled in cheaper plans would move into the new marketplaces. Their presence would help keep prices lower for everyone.

If those healthier people stick with their current plans, then the new marketplaces will be filled with older, sicker people, and premiums could rise.

White House officials say that they designed the new policy with an eye to those concerns. Insurance companies will be required to tell people that they might get a better deal in a new plan on the federal or state insurance marketplaces.

That is a subtle nudge that might help persuade people to move off what officials say are substandard policies and into the marketplaces. But insurance company executives and their representatives warned that such tweaks might not be enough to avoid problems. Those issues were sure to come up when the executives met with Obama and his advisers.

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