Some can keep old health plans into 2017, White House says

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration announced Wednesday that some Americans with health insurance policies that don't meet consumer standards set by the Affordable Care Act will be allowed to keep their plans into 2017, three years later than originally envisioned.

Allowing some consumers to keep old insurance plans past the end of President Barack Obama's term marks the latest effort by the administration to get out from under one of the most damaging controversies shadowing the launch of the health care law.

Senior administration officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said they believe that about 1.5 million consumers nationwide now are covered under such plans, about 500,000 of which were purchased by individuals and the rest by small businesses.

"The goal is to implement the Affordable Care Act in a common-sense way," a senior administration official said, adding that officials believe that this latest announcement will be the last significant change the administration will make in the law's deadlines and requirements.

Officials also announced that the open enrollment period for health coverage next year would begin Nov. 15, notably after the fall's midterm elections, and extend through February 2015.

Many Americans who had bought health care plans on their own were stunned last fall when insurance firms announced that their policies would be canceled because they did not include required benefits or meet other standards set by the law. Because Mr. Obama had promised that people who liked their existing plans would be able to keep them, the cancellation letters quickly became a major political issue.

White House officials repeatedly have said the vast majority of people who got cancellation notices were able to replace their old policies with new ones, in some cases at lower cost. But that argument has not quelled the political uproar. Conservative and Republican groups already have run millions of dollars' worth of ads against Democratic candidates on the issue, accusing them of participating in the "lie of the year."

The law was designed to phase out health insurance plans in 2014 if they did not include a basic set of benefits or include limits on how much consumers can be required to pay out of pocket for their medical care.

After the controversy broke, the administration announced that state regulators could allow insurers to renew old policies in 2014. Not all states have gone along with that. Some, particularly those with liberal Democratic insurance regulators, have balked at letting what they consider sub-standard plans remain on the market. The new guidance would allow those plans to be renewed again as late as Oct. 1, 2016, meaning some consumers could hold onto their health care plans into 2017.

The practical effect of the new extension may be limited. Officials said they believe the number of consumers covered by plans that don't meet the law's standards will be significantly lower by 2016 with the usual market churn for individual insurance.

But the new extension may defuse a political time bomb the administration would have faced later this year if some consumers once again received notices canceling their insurance plans just ahead of the November elections.

In other action Wednesday, the House backed a one-year delay in the penalty individuals face for failing to sign up for health insurance, the 50th time Republicans have forced a vote to repeal, gut or change the law. The vote was 250-160, with 27 Democrats joining Republicans to delay the law's individual mandate.

The measure stands no chance in the Democratic-led Senate, and the White House has threatened a veto. Republicans remain convinced that public dissatisfaction with the law will cost Democrats in November's contests, helping the GOP increase its House majority and possibly win back the Senate.

Some vulnerable Democrats in competitive races voted with the GOP, including lawmakers from Arizona, Georgia, Illinois and New Hampshire. Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, seeking Michigan's open Senate seat, also backed the bill.


Associated Press contributed.


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