On June 10, 2015, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing entitled, “Implementing ObamaCare and the Department of Health and Human Services FY 2016 Budget Request.” The hearing was held for the purpose of questioning Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell regarding the implementation of the controversial “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” commonly known as “ObamaCare.”
Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, opened the hearing. He set the tone quickly, saying to Secretary Burwell, “I hope he gives you a medal after this—because defending ObamaCare is no easy task. I think any objective observer would say this law is on the fritz.” Ryan pointed out that, while the Affordable Care Act was, as the name implies, an act intended to make care more affordable, has in fact had the opposite effect. He cited anticipated premium increases across the country, specifically mentioning, “In Maryland, it’s close to 30 percent. Tennessee, 36 percent. South Dakota, 42 percent.” Furthermore, Ryan highlighted increased emergency room admissions, as well as fewer choices for patients and lower quality of care.
According to Chairman Ryan, the Obama administration is well aware that the system established by the ACA is fundamentally flawed and broken. Case in point: the White House has repeatedly worked to unilaterally rewrite or fix the law, often delaying key mandates and components of ObamaCare in order to avoid politically damaging repercussions. In Ryan’s words, the president and the executive branch are “not so much implementing the law as improvising it.” Congressman Ryan claims this as a usurpation of congressional power by the president and his administration.
Ranking Member of the Committee, Sander Levin (D-MI), delivered his remarks following Chairman Ryan and derided Republicans as “armchair critics,” who had not provided a viable alternative to the ACA. The Congressman from Michigan attempted to paint his colleagues across the aisle as being “livid because it’s getting better.”
Secretary Burwell – the only witness testifying in the hearing – was mostly concerned with the budget request in her opening statement. She called for common ground between the White House and Congress, as well as Republicans and Democrats. Specifically, Burwell requested an $83.8 billion discretionary fund, an increase of $4.8 billion from the last fiscal year. She claimed this move would be “fiscally responsible,” as it would allegedly save taxpayers $250 billion over the next ten years. However, Burwell was unclear on how exactly these savings would be achieved. The added funds would be primarily directed toward research, overall efficiency improvements, care, and improving coverage for those already insured. Of these funds, $99 million would also be designated for drug abuse and addiction treatment.
Asking the first question during the Q&A portion of the hearing, Chairman Ryan referenced the upcoming Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell that is expected later this month. This case could very well result in a ruling that prevents the federal ObamaCare exchanges from granting subsidies given to Americans in the 34 states that chose not to establish state-run exchanges. If the Court does strike down the federal subsidies, Ryan asked whether the president would demand a legislative fix on his own terms or if he would take a bipartisan approach and work with Republicans in Congress to find a solution. Secretary Burwell responded that the administration felt strongly that it was upholding the law and that, in such a scenario, “we’ll do everything we can.”
Congressman Levin spoke next, calling Congressman Ryan’s tone unproductive and evidence of Republican intractability. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX) countered that it was Democrats and the president that are not willing to work with the Republicans. He also mentioned the rising costs of health care. In response, Secretary Burwell claimed that, while it is true that costs are going up, the rate at which they are increasing is decreasing.
Committee Members’ remarks and questions fell mostly along typical party lines. Republicans like Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL), pointed out extreme rises in health care costs among his constituents. Congressman Todd Young (R-IN) told the story of a woman in his district who now has to pay an additional $135 a month for health insurance and has been forced to changed doctors. Democrats, for the most part, defended the ACA. Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) claimed that the ACA should not be a political issue and made a lengthy appeal to human compassion, going overtime without asking a single question of Secretary Burwell. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) stated that Democrats were proud of the ACA. He repeated the argument that the Republicans had no viable alternative, as did Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA). Congressman McDermott, like Congressman Levin, claimed that the Republicans were unwilling to work with the administration. After calling the Republicans intractable, he asked if the president would consider signing a bill to repeal Obamacare. Secretary Burwell answered that he would not.
Congressmen Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), while certainly not opposed to the ACA itself, were dissatisfied with its implementation. Congressman Blumenauer was especially outspoken on this and appeared openly frustrated. AMAC continues to constantly monitor congressional action related to ObamaCare – particularly in the lead up to a monumental Supreme Court ruling that will impact the future of health care in America.