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Obama Says States Can Opt Out of Health Care Plan Three Years Early

3 years ago
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In a nod to pressure from state governors, President Obama announced a plan on Monday to allow states to opt out of some aspects of the nation's health care reform law three years earlier than previously mandated. As currently written, the law says states must wait until 2017; the new bill would allow them to begin pursuing alternate plans as early as 2014.

As governors across the country have waged battles to trim large deficits -- most publicly of late in Wisconsin -- the move was seen as a concession to those leaders who have criticized the new health care law and questioned its economic implications. Twenty-six governors have filed lawsuits against the federal government, claiming the law is unconstitutional.

Sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the bill is called the Empowering States to Innovate Act. It would give states a waiver to pursue their own health care plans -- as long as those plans provide equally comprehensive, affordable insurance coverage to at least as many residents as the Affordable Care Act provides. And these plans would have to do so while insuring that they would not add to the federal deficit, according to a White House press release.

Obama administration officials cautioned that the bill was not to be interpreted as an effort to roll back the health care reform law. "The president has always said that states should be given enormous flexibility in how they achieve the goals of the law," said Stephanie Cutter, an assistant to the president. "It made good sense to embrace the idea to move the date."

Cutter added that Obama remained "open to ideas" for reforming the Affordable Care Act, and cited his State of the Union address this year, where he embraced revisions to the law involving a 1099 reporting requirement and malpractice reform. But, she cautioned, the White House was "not open to refighting the fights of the last few years -- or weakening the law."

As for alternate plans, the White House outlined several possibilities, including allowing large employers to purchase coverage through state exchanges, or increasing the number of benefit levels to provide more choices for individuals and small businesses.

The president's support of the bill has political implications at a time when many states have legally challenged the law's individual mandate, which requires most people to buy health insurance. Most of the court challenges have not been upheld, but two judges have ruled against the law in cases that will likely be decided eventually by the Supreme Court.

Cutter said that the new bill would not affect those lawsuits. "This moves a date," she said. "It doesn't have any real legal impact on the cases being argued across the country."

The president has never been a hard-core advocate of the mandate. As a candidate in 2008, he did not include a mandate in his health plan and expressed openness on the issue throughout the long and contentious debate that led to the groundbreaking bill's passage.

White House officials on Monday reiterated their belief that the mandate remained the best option, but said the bill left the door open for states to develop a better plan -- and implement it three years earlier. "If someone has a better idea," said Cutter, "so be it."

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