WASHINGTON - Republicans are offering to bail out a financially strapped program in the federal health overhaul, one that's a lifeline for uninsured people with medical problems. Truce in the health-care wars? Not!
The GOP bill, headed for a vote Wednesday in the House, would divert billions from another program under President Obama's signature law, a transfer Democrats say would undermine broader goals. The White House is threatening a veto of the measure.
Caught in the middle are the so-called uninsurables, people like Susan Zurface, a small-town lawyer from Ohio with a recent diagnosis of leukemia, no health insurance and medical bills piling up. The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan was designed to offer them a path to private coverage.
Obama's Affordable Care Act was supposed to require health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing medical problems. But those consumer protections don't take effect until Jan. 1, along with a mandate that virtually every American must get coverage, expanding the insurance pool to try to keep costs in check.
Until then, the pre-existing conditions plan - known as PCIP - was supposed to help. It guarantees private coverage at average rates to people who had problems getting insurance because of a medical condition and were uninsured for at least six months. It would disappear in 2014.
But Congress allocated a limited amount of money. And in February, the Obama administration said it would stop taking new applications to ensure enough money would be left to cover more than 100,000 people already enrolled.
PCIP patients have turned out to be sicker and costlier than anticipated. But in his budget, Obama did not ask Congress for emergency funding to keep the program going.
House Republicans say they want to help Zurface and others like her by providing up to $3.6 billion to not only keep the doors open for new patients, but also expand it by eliminating the requirement that applicants be uninsured for six months before they qualify.
Meant to deter people from dropping private coverage to take advantage of a government-sponsored plan, that particular feature has been criticized as a stumbling block for patients.
The money would come from another program in the health-care law, the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which is supposed to be used for public health activities. In the GOP bill, called the Helping Sick Americans Now Act, all unallocated money from the prevention fund for 2013-16 would be diverted.
That's no mere bookkeeping transfer, because the Obama administration plans to use at least $300 million from the prevention fund to publicize the new health insurance markets coming this fall under the health-care law.