House Republicans blast health care law waivers

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Republicans waged a sharply worded attack Wednesday on the Obama administration's efforts to relax some of the new health care rules that affect businesses, unions and states.

Their rhetoric at a midmorning outdoor news conference became as overheated as the weather, leaving little doubt that Republicans intend to use the health care law as a punching bag in the 2012 elections, much as they did in 2010.

The House of Representatives Republicans who attended the steamy session objected to the policy of granting waivers to the law. The waivers permit employee health insurance providers to temporarily deflect the new higher minimum spending limits on medical expenses to avoid hurting consumers.

Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas called the waivers "sweetheart carve-outs" for "well-heeled fat cats."

Her Kansas GOP colleague, Rep. Mike Pompeo, charged that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Democratic governor of Kansas, was practicing "Chicago-style politics" by granting waivers to politically friendly unions and businesses.

Sebelius' office has previously denied the allegation. "Absolutely not," Steve Larsen, a Sebelius deputy involved in health care, said when the question came up last week.

The department also announced last week that it would end the waiver program in September.

The new health care law remains politically radioactive even more than a year after it passed.

Among the core coverage programs that go into effect in 2014 is the elimination of lifetime or yearly dollar limits on benefits.

The waivers are designed as a bridge until 2014 because requiring limited benefit plans "to comply with the new rules could cause ... premiums to increase significantly, forcing employers to drop coverage and leaving some workers without even the minimal insurance coverage they have today," according to HHS.

A recent Government Accountability Office analysis of the waiver program backed that up. It found that waivers went to applicants with projected premium increases of 10 percent or more.

The study said that HHS had received more than 1,400 waiver applications and had approved 95 percent of them. Most went to businesses.

Republicans, however, continue to raise questions about whether politics has played a role in who gets waivers, who doesn't and why.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas asked Sebelius in a letter this month, signed by nearly three dozen House Republicans, for more details.

At the news conference on the Capitol grounds, Huelskamp said they hadn't received a response. He pointed to an easel holding a large blank white board to make the point.

"Obamacare was pitched to the American people as making health care fair for all, yet waivers do exactly the opposite," Huelskamp said. "It makes it a choice between the haves and the have-nots. Some get to be exempt from the law, while the rest of America has to live under it."

Larsen said in a statement after the news conference, "The annual limit waiver process has been straightforward, objective and transparent."

HHS officials also said that while Sebelius didn't reply directly to the GOP letter, the department informed Huelskamp's staff last week where on its website it could find much of the information the Republicans had requested.

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