Democratic lawmakers look to hold insurance industry's feet to fire

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Democrats who have been in a defensive crouch because of the botched rollout of ObamaCare are beginning to take the offensive by scrutinizing insurance companies, a longtime Democratic bête noire.

Some Democrats think insurance executives are having it both ways, by reaping big profits from new customers entering the market because of federal subsidies and mandates while simultaneously blaming ObamaCare for problems in the market.

President Obama has been reluctant to directly criticize insurance companies because he needs their cooperation to achieve as smooth a transition as possible to the new insurance marketplaces.

Obama met with industry executives at the White House Friday afternoon to brainstorm about ways to improve the law’s rocky rollout, which has hurt the president and his party in public polling.

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Democratic lawmakers have taken a more aggressive posture, however. They are pressuring the industry to take responsibility for hundreds of thousands of people who want to keep their insurance plans but could not until this past week because they failed to meet ObamaCare’s requirements.

They say the ball is now in the industry’s court after the president announced his administration would let companies continue to offer plans that do not meet the law’s standards if people want to keep them.

“What we have to do is have all legislators team up and call upon the insurance industry to honor their side of the bargain because it requires not only the government side but it requires the insurance companies to keep offering the policies and not cancel them on folks,” said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Wells CEO Stumpf resigns from Fed advisory panel MORE (D-Ore.).

“I’ll be calling on insurance companies to continue to extend the individual plans that citizens currently have,” he said.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said companies should take advantage of the one-year administrative fix Obama announced Thursday.

“This now rests at the feet of the insurance companies. They’re the ones that have to step up and make the plans available,” the aide said.

Unlike competing bills proposed by Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuLouisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy Crowded field muddies polling in Louisiana Senate race MORE (D-La.) and Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Energy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium MORE (D-Colo.), who both face competitive elections next year, Obama’s plan does not mandate insurance companies to let people keep the plans they like if they do not conform to the law’s requirements.

House Democrats on Friday proposed legislation to empower the secretary of Health and Human Services and state insurance commissioners to go after “bad actor” insurance companies and take action against “excessive, unjustified, unfair and discriminatory rates.”

“They blame ObamaCare for anything they do that’s different,” said a House Democratic aide. “They’re making a lot of pocket book decisions.”

Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowMichigan Dems highlight Flint with unanimous opposition to CR How Congress averted shutdown Senate passes funding bill to avoid shutdown MORE (D-Mich.) privately expressed her frustration with the industry at a recent meeting with colleagues.

She grumbled that insurance companies have it “both ways” by being able to blame ObamaCare for rising premiums while also gaining millions of new customers because of the law, said a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

“She said they’re smiling all the way to the bank,” the lawmaker said.

Democrats have long been critical of the business practices of the insurance industry, a motivating factor behind passing the Affordable Care Act in the first place.

In March, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinSenate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override WH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report MORE (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to grant the Department of Health and Human Services authority to block or modify “excessive” rate increases.

“I tried to include regulatory rate review in the health reform law that passed Congress in 2010, but without further legislative action, consumers will continue to be at the mercy of health insurance companies as their premiums grow beyond the rate of medical inflation,” Feinstein said at the time.

Senate Democratic support for Feinstein’s bill could swell if lawmakers think industry executives have not done enough to keep premiums in check during the transition to the new government-backed insurance exchanges.

So far, Feinstein’s bill has five cosponsors: Sens. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDems gain upper hand on budget Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (D-Calif.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersVulnerable NH Republican ties reelection bid to Trump Overnight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade Trump mocks Clinton for stumbling while sick with pneumonia MORE (I-Vt.), Jon TesterJon TesterDemocrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule MORE (D-Mont.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senate Dems call for investigation into Wells Fargo's wage practices MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseOvernight Energy: SEC begins probing Exxon Senate Dems unveil new public option push for ObamaCare Emails: Powell talked Clinton health concerns with Dem mega-donor MORE (D-R.I.).

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) sponsored a companion measure with 24 cosponsors in the House.

In the meantime, the president is taking a more conciliatory approach with industry.

“We'll talk about ways we can work together to help people enroll through the marketplace and efforts we can make to minimize disruption for consumers as they transition to new coverage,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters before Obama’s meeting with executives.