Arkansas congressman unveils care proposal; employer-penalty repeal among provisions in health bill

WASHINGTON — Under legislation introduced Monday evening by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., employers who don’t provide health insurance for their employees would no longer be penalized.

The measure would also raise caps on premiums for older, high-risk Americans while allowing new restrictions on enrollment for those seeking insurance through state exchanges.

The Republican-backed 2017 tax law eliminated the “individual mandate,” a penalty on uninsured Americans. Westerman, who favored repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act during the previous session of Congress, wants to roll back other penalties as well.

“I think one of the problems with the Affordable Care Act is trying to force Americans to do something that they may not want to do,” the lawmaker from Hot Springs said in an interview. “A big thrust of what we’re trying to achieve with this bill is to have fair access to health care and to have more choices so that people can get the health care plan that’s right for them.”

Westerman said there’s no evidence that repealing the employer penalties would result in more Americans being uninsured.

“We want to make it where it’s more cost-effective for employers to provide health care,” he said.

National Federation of Independent Business spokesman Adam Temple said rising health care premiums are a burden for job creators.

The penalty is now $2,320 per employee once the first 30 employees are subtracted.

“We support any effort to repeal the employer mandate that threatens to drain resources needed to hire and retain workers and invest in business operations,” he said.

But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, portrayed Westerman’s 230-page proposal as “bad for consumers” and a large tax cut for high-income earners.

“This bill seems like a grab bag of bad ideas from the various repeal bills from 2017,” said Aviva Aron-Dine, the group’s vice president for health policy.

The legislation would eliminate the net investment income tax, which is levied on certain individuals with annual income above $200,000 and married joint filers earning $250,000 or more per year.

An individual with $1 million in annual investment income would receive a tax cut of $30,000 if Westerman’s bill becomes law, Aron-Dine added.

A 2.3 percent tax on medical-device manufacturers and the health-insurance tax on insurers would also be repealaed.

Instead, Westerman would levy a new $4 fee on some health insurance policies.

The money would help to create a “high-risk pool” program that would shield insurers from much of the risk associated with these policies.

In addition, the measure would prevent most federal workers from obtaining health care through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Instead, they would obtain their health care through exchange plans, with the federal government continuing to provide a 72 percent match.

The bill also would allow states to eliminate annual enrollment for participants in insurance exchanges, replacing it with enrollment periods every two or three years.

Insurers would have greater latitude to raise insurance premiums on older, higher-risk Americans. Currently, premiums on this group are capped at 300 percent of the rates charged to younger, lower-risk Americans. Under Westerman’s plan, the premiums would be capped at 500 percent.

The proposal also makes it easier for states to obtain block-grant funding for certain health programs.

A summary of the legislation, provided by Westerman’s office, says these changes would result in stronger Affordable Care Act exchanges as well as lower insurance premiums.

Reached shortly before the bill was released, Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said it was too early to comment on it.

Health care is one of the nation’s “most important political issues,” and changes can be beneficial, he said.

“We need to continue improving our system. It’s not a status quo system,” he added.

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