States scramble after Obama reversal

States scramble after Obama reversal

November 16th, 2013 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, T-Tenn., speaks to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters Friday about the Affordable Care Act, TVA and nuclear power, and his possible opponents in the next election.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

For tens of thousands of Tennesseans facing the prospect of canceled plans under the Affordable Care Act, the past month has been nothing short of a roller coaster.

First came the letters that their policies didn't comply with the new health law's standards, despite repeated promises from President Barack Obama that if they liked their plan, they could keep it.

Then, on Thursday, Obama announced that the 5 million Americans with such plans that did not meet new standards under the health law would be able to keep them for another year.

But insurance companies and state insurance commissioners have scrambled with the implications of the sweeping move, saying it creates a logistical nightmare just six weeks before new policies take effect in the new year.

In some states, insurance commissioners have resisted the president's decision outright.

And still, a stream of bills seeking to grandfather in such policies in a variety of fashions is circulating through Congress, with one passing the House of Representatives on Friday.

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens sharply criticized what he called "nothing more than a political stunt meant to "shift the blame from the president's flawed health care reform."

He left the decision whether to extend the policies in the hands of insurance companies, saying he did not have the statutory authority to make insurers provide what he called the president's "stop gap measure."

That has left Georgia insurance companies on the fence for now. Bert Kelly, spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia said the company had just seen the commissioner's decision, but had not yet determined how to proceed.

In Tennessee, Department of Commerce and Insurance officials were "in the war room" all day Friday after the president's announcement, said spokeswoman Kate Abernathy, and were seeking more direction from the federal government about how to act out the order.

In a statement, Commissioner Julie McPeak said the one-year extension "has major implications" for both consumers and the health insurance market, but she appeared to be in support of an extension.

"I believe in providing Tennessee consumers with a variety of insurance options and I support allowing Tennesseans to keep the coverage they were assured they could," McPeak said.

Tennessee insurance companies are awaiting McPeak's decision.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which announced last month that 66,000 policies would not meet the new criteria of Obamacare, released a statement saying they need to work closely with state regulators to update policies and review rates to "keep these plans available to existing members and small groups."

"At BlueCross, we've always believed people should be able to choose the plan they think best meets their needs, so we support this effort to let our individual members and small business customers keep their existing coverage," a statement from company spokesman Gary Tanner said.

While Obama's statement alleviated to some degree public and political outrage and eased tensions within his own party, it left critics doubting his authority to make such a change to the law.

Even as Obama arranged a meeting Friday at the White House with insurance company CEOs, the Republican-controlled House voted Friday to approve a bill to allow insurance companies to sell individual health coverage to all comers, even if it falls short of the required standards in "Obamacare."

The House measure went one major step farther. It would give insurance firms the ability to sell individual plans to new as well as existing customers, even if the coverage falls short of the law's requirements.

The bill now goes to an uncertain fate in the Senate, where several similar bills have been proposed.

Though Republican leadership has pushed for a reversal since the notice of the cancellations, many ended up voicing skepticism when Obama made his announcement about extending policies.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is co-sponsoring one of the similar bills in the Senate, but in a Friday interview with the Times Free Press in Chattanooga, he said he feared "the horses are already out of the barn" in regard to the canceled policies.

"It's very hard to un-cancel millions of policies within six weeks," he said. "The insurance companies have already created other policies. ... Many of the people who had the policies have sought new policies. Prices of the new policies would have to go up. Whatever the new policies are have to be approved by state regulators. Every time I try to unravel how to fix Obamacare it's hard to see how too do it."

Ultimately, Alexander said, "it's hard to think of how to fix [Obamacare] as long as it's there."

Regardless of the back-and-forth in Washington, many of the Tennesseans and Georgians with discontinued plans still have time to make their next move.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, like other insurers, has allowed early renewal for people on those plans, which means they can have several months to a year -- depending on the policy -- to stay under such coverage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.