By Allison Bell
Photo: United States Mission Geneva / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0
U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Friday assured yet another congressional panel that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act exchanges will be opening on schedule.
“We are moving ahead,” Sebelius said at a House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee hearing on the HHS fiscal year 2014 budget request. “We are definitely going to be open for open enrollment starting Oct. 1 of 2013.”
Federal fiscal year 2014 will start Oct. 1.
Sebelius has given similar assurances about progress at the HHS PPACA exchange development program at HHS budget hearings organized by the Senate Finance Committee’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee and at the House Ways and Means Committee.
PPACA calls for HHS to work with state regulators to start exchanges, or health insurance supermarkets for individuals and small groups.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., suggested at the HELP hearing last Wednesday that it looks as if the exchange program may be headed for a “train wreck.”
Congress has provided only $1 billion of the $10 billion that analysts originally said HHS would need to set up the exchange program, Sebelius said.
“We’ve judiciously used those resources,” and efforts to set up the “Hub,” the data center and call center to be at the heart of the exchange system, are going well, Sebelius said.
HHS will transfer money from prevention programs to fund exchange education and enrollment efforts, Sebelius said.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said Sebelius should speak more frankly about the funding obstacles that Republicans have put in the way of PPACA implementation.
“They can’t come back and criticize if the outreach doesn’t occur if they’re not funding it,” Pallone said.
Republicans on the subcommittee asked whether Sebelius really has to use prevention fund money to pay for PPACA exchange outreach programs.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a medical doctor, asked Sebelius about the HHS decision to abruptly suspend enrollment in the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) program, a health insurance program for uninsured people with health problems that make buying medically underwritten coverage difficult.
He referred to a woman with lymphoma who said she learned HHS had shut down the PCIP program the day before she had been about to submit her application.
“Is it Obamacare or Obamadon’tcare?” Burgess asked. “Rather than spending [prevention fund money] on advertising for a program that may not even work on Oct. 1, or Jan. 1, why should we not transfer money from that fund to actually help the people that you promised to help — the people with pre-existing conditions?”
Sebelius said Americans like the woman with lymphoma will benefit greatly starting Jan. 1, 2014, because, after that date, “no American will ever again be locked out of a health program because of a pre-existing condition.”
PCIP was always supposed to be a temporary program, not a permanent solution, and it would not exist if the Republicans had succeeded with their many efforts to repeal PPACA, Sebelius said.
At another point, an exchange between Sebelius and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the chairman of the health subcommittee, hinted at the problems that even members of Congress and their staffers may be having with keeping up with PPACA implementation details.
Pitts asked why the PPACA exchanges would not give small businesses a choice of health plans in 2014.
Sebelius had to explain that HHS has decided to let the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) small-group exchanges put off giving employers a chance to offer employees a multi-carrier coverage option.
Each SHOP exchange will still offer the employers themselves a chance to choose from a menu that includes plans from all of the carriers that have agreed to sell plans through that exchange, Sebelius said.