House passes bill allowing people to keep their health plan

Insurance coverage requirements will be temporarily waived

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WASHINGTON -- Defying a veto threat from President Barack Obama, the House approved legislation Friday that would allow insurance companies to renew individual health insurance policies and sell similar ones 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 and the White House to vote in favor of the bill.

Hours after the vote, Mr. Obama and top aides met for more than an hour with insurance executives Friday afternoon after industry leaders complained Thursday that they had been blindsided by a White House reversal on canceled policies. The president described the meeting as a "brainstorming" session about how to make sure changes to the health care law go smoothly.

The insurers who were there, from more than a dozen of the nation's largest companies, said the discussion covered a wide range of issues, but that the president agreed that his priority was to fix the health care website.

The insurance representatives said they would work with the administration to protect the financial viability of the new marketplaces, but did not say how they would do that. Afterward, Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said it was a "very productive" meeting, but would not go into detail.

The legislation the House approved would go further than the fix announced Thursday by Mr. Obama, who said he would temporarily waive some requirements of the law and let insurers renew "current policies for current enrollees" for a year.

Many of the Democrats who supported the bill are facing tough re-election fights back home, and expressed deep frustration with how the administration had handled the early implementation of Mr. Obama's signature health care law.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who voted for the legislation, said the White House deserved an "F-minus" for its botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. "I'm disgusted about it," he said. "I think heads should roll downtown. Whoever was responsible or may have known that this was going to occur should no longer be employed."

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., chief sponsor of the House bill, said it would fulfill a promise that Mr. Obama had made to the American people and then broken.

"In the last three years," he 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."

Mr. Upton belittled Mr. Obama's proposal, saying it was 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 Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. "You just want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are not going to let you do that."

The legislation's outlook is unclear in the Senate, where Democrats running for re-election in 2014 are seeking 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 let people keep their current plans indefinitely. But after Mr. Obama's turnabout Thursday, many Senate Democrats said they were waiting to see if more legislation was necessary, and quick Senate action is not expected.

House Democrats on Friday used a procedural maneuver to offer a plan of their own, called "Landrieu lite," intended to build on the president's fix and offer members more political cover. The Democratic proposal, rejected by Republicans, would have let people who like their current plans retain them for a year. But under the Democrats' proposal, unlike Mr. Upton's, insurers could not sell plans that previously faced cancellation to new customers.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, D-Va., 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,

But Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Mr. 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, let insurers sell "cut-rate shoddy policies that lack the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act."

The House vote came as Mr. 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.

The White House said Mr. 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 the new federal and state marketplaces' premiums 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.


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