Hours after taking the oath of office President Donald Trump signed a broadly worded executive order (“Order”) intended to minimize if not eliminate the impact of the ACA’s least popular provisions. With the Order President Trump can claim immediate action towards fulfilling a major campaign pledge while giving his administration and the Republican led Congress time to come up with a replacement plan.
The Order directs the secretary of HHS and other agency heads to, among other directives:
[E]xercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the [ACA] that would impose a fiscal burden on any State or a cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden on individuals, families, healthcare providers, health insurers, patients, recipients of healthcare services, purchasers of health insurance, or makers of medical devices, products, or medications. [And] [t]o . . . exercise all authority and discretion available to them to provide greater flexibility to States and cooperate with them in implementing healthcare programs. [And] [t]o . . . encourage the development of a free and open market in interstate commerce for the offering of healthcare services and health insurance, with the goal of achieving and preserving maximum options for patients and consumers.
The Order makes it clear that any agency actions under the order must be within the confines of the law and its existing regulations, both of which remain in place at least for now. The agencies still have the option of amending or repealing ACA regulations but the Order gives them the authority to take some action before going through the regulatory approval process.
Apparently, the agencies will decide which stakeholders’ costs and “burdens” under the ACA will be reduced. This presents them with an interesting challenge given the opposing interests inherent in the broad group of stakeholders expressly targeted for relief under the Order. For example, if the scope of the individual mandate (likely the prime target of the Order) were reduced relieving some individuals of the cost of buying health insurance, it would likely skew the risk pool of the exchange plans to less healthy participants increasing the cost and burden on the exchange’s insurers and those individuals who want to purchase insurance through the exchanges. That action could also end up reducing overall insurance coverage increasing the uncompensated care hospitals and other providers would be required to deliver.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to watch, however, will be whether the Order ultimately has any significant substantive effect or simply ends up being a symbolic gesture. Some observers have contended that significant delays to, or gutting of, a portion of the ACA’s tightly woven and inter-related pieces mid-year 2017 would create chaos in the affected programs, like the health insurance exchanges, which are already underway this year. Therefore, there has been speculation that actions under the Order are not likely to be effective until 2018. The question is whether any actions under the Order, which are expressly limited to those that are permissible under the ACA, will mean anything in 2018 when it is almost certain that the ACA will have already been repealed.
Whether substantive or symbolic, clearly the first step in the ACA’s dismantling has been taken and we will be watching very closely as the administration and Congress take many more.