HHS officials face their customers

Gary Cohen (CMS photo) Gary Cohen (CMS photo)

Members of Congress now have a unique perspective on the federal Small Business Health Options Program: They work for the only employer in the country that has to get its health coverage from the program.

Members of Congress and many members of their staff must get their coverage from the DC Health Link SHOP exchange.

Some lawmakers voiced frustration with the program today at House hearings on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act implementation.

When Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appeared at a House Energy & Commerce health subcommittee PPACA hearing, lawmakers asked her a wide range of questions.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., for example, asked her how much HHS will have to spend on extra risk management program payments to compensate carriers for the administration’s decision to encourage them to let individuals and small employers continue non-PPACA-compliant health coverage well into 2014.

Sebelius said HHS won’t have any idea how much the rule change will cost until it has more enrollment information.

Other committee members asked her questions based on their own efforts to sign up for coverage.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said his family found its own out-of-pocket costs will go up 117 percent next year.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a medical doctor, complained he wasn’t able to pay for the coverage he bought through HealthCare.gov.

Sebelius said the carriers are responsible for taking payment, and that enrollees can mail payments, too.

“We tell people over and over again that they’re enrolled when they make the payment,” Sebelius said.

Burgess said he thinks many consumers will overlook the need to make a payment, fail to do so, and end up saddling doctors who think the consumers have exchange plan coverage with bills consumers can’t pay.

When Gary Cohen, the deputy administration in charge of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight appeared later at House Small Business Committee hearing on the SHOP exchanges, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, complained about the difficulty of finding policies that help him observe Catholic teachings about abortion and birth control.

All of the available policies include coverage for birth control, and drugs the Catholic church classifies as drugs that induce abortion, King said.

PPACA requires all exchange plan enrollees to have access to a plan that includes no coverage for abortion.

King said he could not find information about abortion benefits online.

“It was awfully hard to get my hands on any policy,” King said.

When King finally did get the policies, he said that he found that nine of the 112 “available plans” omit abortion benefits. But most were regional plans he can’t actually buy. Only one of the plans he can buy leaves out abortion benefits.

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