A few additional tweaks to the American Health Care Act helped garner just enough Republican votes to pass the first phase of the party’s three-part effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The bill passed May 4 by a 217-213 margin, with one Republican member not voting. The vote came after a false start in March when House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) canceled consideration because Republicans could not muster enough votes to pass it. All votes in favor of the bill came from GOP members, while all House Democrats plus 20 Republicans voted against passage.

This was the 63rd vote in the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Two amendments helped to make the bill palatable enough to gain enough votes for passage. New amendments from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) targeted high-risk pools. They were added to an April amendment from Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) that would allow states to seek waivers for coverage of the essential health benefits and from community rating provisions to allow for higher premiums for those who are sicker or older.

The American Health Care Act ( H.R. 1629 ) in its amended form has not been yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to determine its effects on the federal budget. However, an earlier CBO analysis of the original, unamended bill predicted an estimated 58 million people would be uninsured by 2026, compared with 28 million under the Affordable Care Act. It is also predicting large premium increases for some groups of patients.

A CBO score is required of all legislation because, under Senate rules, anything that adds to the budget must be offset by additional revenue-generating provisions or cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The bill, if passed and sent to the president’s desk for signature, is at minimum budget neutral if not deficit reducing.

The amended AHCA was roundly rejected by most physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and many specialty societies.

“The bill passed by the House today will result in millions of Americans losing access to quality, affordable health insurance and those with preexisting health conditions face the possibility of going back to the time when insurers could charge them premiums that made access to coverage out of the question,” AMA President Andrew Gurman, MD, said in a statement . “The AMA urges the Senate and the Administration to work with physician, patient, hospital, and other provider groups to craft bipartisan solutions so all American families can access affordable and meaningful coverage, while preserving the safety net for vulnerable patients.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in addition to criticizing the bill for its predicted effects in increasing premiums and decreasing coverage for those with preexisting conditions, called out the bill for being nothing more than a means to help cover the cost of a separate tax bill when she described the AHCA as providing “tax cuts for the rich at the expense of health insurance for tens of millions of working families across America” during the debate prior to passage. “Trumpcare is a billionaire’s tax cut disguised as a health care bill.”

Speaker Ryan continued to highlight the continual coverage issues that have been growing in the individual health insurance marketplace, spotlighting Iowa, where insurer Medica has announced that it will likely discontinue providing coverage in 2018, leaving most counties in the state with no option to purchase coverage following the announced withdrawal of Aetna and Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“This is a crisis,” Speaker Ryan said during the debate. “What protection is Obamacare if there is no health care plan to purchase in your state? This is the direction Obamacare is rapidly heading.”

In helping to get the AHCA barely over the final hurdle, the Palmer amendment creates an “invisible risk-sharing program” under which the federal government would subsidize insurers to the tune of $15 billion over 9 years. The program would allow insurers to make a prospective determination of who might be a cost-intensive user and move them to the high-risk pool with the federal funding joining insurer funding to help pay for coverage. The amendment also would change the ACA’s reinsurance provisions, which retroactively reimburse insurers for high-utilizing customers.

Neither invisible risk sharing nor retroactive reinsurance are “inherently superior at reducing premiums,” according to an April 12 blog post by the journal Health Affairs. “Premium reductions depend entirely on how much funding the program receives in relation to the risks being insured. Rep. Palmer’s amendment leaves all the critical details of this new, invisible program unspecified, making it hard to generate precise estimate.”

Authors Mark Hall, senior fellow at Brookings Institute, and Nicholas Bagely, law professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, note that the funding in the amendment “is no more than 2% of total premiums in the market.”

The Upton amendment would add an additional $8 billion in funding for high-risk pools, bringing the total amount potentially available to help cover people with preexisting conditions to $123 billion.

Analysis from Avalere finds that the funding specifically allocated to assist those with preexisting conditions ($23 billion, including the additional $8 billion from the Upton amendment) “will only cover 110,000 individuals with preexisting, chronic condition. If states were to allocate all the other funds [available in the AHCA] toward providing insurance to people with preexisting conditions … 600,000 with preexisting chronic conditions could be covered.” The analysis notes approximately “2.2 million enrollees in the individual market today have some sort of preexisting chronic condition.”

“Given the amount of funding in the bill, the program can only afford a few small states to opt into medical underwriting,” Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at Avalere, said in a statement. “If any large states receive a waiver, many chronically ill individuals could be left without access to insurance.”

Because the AHCA focuses solely on reforming revenue-related aspects of the ACA and was passed using budget reconciliation procedures, it will need only a simple majority to pass the Senate. However, keeping the bill budget neutral will make it difficult to pass in its current form, even though Republicans hold 52 of the chamber’s 100 seats.

Phase two of the repeal and replace plan will be a full examination of federal regulations and phase three, which will require at least 60 votes in the Senate, will be changes to other provisions in the health care law that are not directly revenue generating. President Donald Trump in the past has suggested that this will include his goals of opening the sale of insurance across state lines and other key priorities.

gtwachtman@frontlinemedcom.com

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