First Edition: December 20, 2013

Today's headlines include reports about the action taken by the administration to relax a health law requirement just four days before the deadline. 

Kaiser Health News: Expect To Pay More For Your Employer-Sponsored Health Care Next Year
Kaiser Health News staff writer Julie Appleby, working in collaboration with USA Today, reports: "If you're one of the 150 million Americans who get health insurance through your job, prepare to pay more. The new year will likely bring higher deductibles and co-payments, penalties for not joining wellness programs and smaller employer contributions toward family coverage. While some workers and employers blame the federal health law for those changes, benefit experts say the law is mainly accelerating trends that predate it" (Appleby, 12/20). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: A Reader Asks: Will My Son Overseas Have To Buy A U.S. Plan?
Kaiser Health News consumer columnist Michelle Andrews answers this readers' question (12/20). Read her response.

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Website Repairs Have Not Bolstered Support For The Health Law, Poll Finds; After Exposure, Security Holes Sealed In Minnesota's Health Exchange
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, Jordan Rau reports on a new tracking poll about the health law: "Improvements in the government's insurance Web portal have not translated into stronger public support for the health law, a new poll shows. Nearly half of the public views the law unfavorably this month, while only a third likes it. That’s about the same as in November, when public opinion plummeted after the technologically troubled start of the health care marketplaces, according to the poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation" (Rau, 12/20). 

Also on the blog, Minnesota Public Radio’s Elizabeth Stawicki reports on Minnesota's health exchange: "A security flaw has been fixed on MNsure, Minnesota’s health insurance marketplace — one that had left users vulnerable to data interception by hackers. The fix follows an MPR story last week and a meeting Monday between forensic analyst Mark Lanterman and the state’s chief information security officer, Chris Buse. At the meeting, Lanterman explained how he discovered the flaw and how the state could resolve the problem" (Stawicki, 12/19). Check out what else is new on the blog.

The New York Times: Another Rule In Health Law Is Scaled Back
Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year, the White House said Thursday night (Pear, 12/19).

Los Angeles Times: Administration Opens First Hole In Health Law Mandate
The Obama administration has opened a small, but potentially important, hole in a key requirement of the new healthcare law, letting some people who have had insurance policies cancelled avoid the requirement to buy coverage next year. The change, announced Thursday night in a letter that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent to a group of senators, marks the first exception the administration has allowed to the law's so-called individual mandate (Lauter, 12/19).

The Washington Post: Obama Administration Relaxes Rules Of Health-Care Law Four Days Before Deadline
The rule change was issued in a bulletin from the Department of Health and Human Services. It is the second major response by the Obama administration to a public and political furor that erupted in the fall when several million people who bought their own insurance began to receive notices that their policies were being canceled because they fell short of new benefit standards. The cancellations prompted complaints that President Obama had reneged on an oft-repeated promise that, under the Affordable Care Act, people who like their health plans could keep them (Goldstein, 12/19).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Options Set For Those Lacking New Health Coverage
Under another stopgap option Sebelius announced Thursday, those whose plans were canceled will be able to buy a bare-bones catastrophic plan regardless of their age. Such plans had been intended for those under 30. A dedicated hotline for people who got cancellations, 1-866-837-0677, is being set up by the Health and Human Services Department as part of the effort to head off more bad news coming from the chaotic rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law (12/20).

The Wall Street Journal: White House Will Allow Some To Buy Catastrophic Health Plans
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a group of six senators in a letter that people whose policies had been canceled because of new requirements under the Affordable Care Act would be allowed to purchase "catastrophic" plans. Those plans previously had been restricted under the new law to people under the age of 30 or those who qualified for a set of specific hardship exemptions (Radnofsky, 12/19).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Overhaul Website Problems May Trigger Price Hikes
Problems with the government’s main health care overhaul website carry a bigger risk than frequent crashes: Higher prices could follow for many Americans if technical troubles scare off young people. The government has touted recent improvements to HeathCare.gov, which millions of Americans are expected to use to sign up for coverage. But enrollment still lags far behind projections, and that has triggered worries that legions of potential customers in their 20s and 30s might not sign up. If that happens — and older, sicker people continue to register in larger numbers — insurers might have to raise future prices to address the imbalance (12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Last-Minute Health-Site Enrollment Proves A Hard Sell
Insurers pressing for last-minute enrollees under the health-care law say they are running into a worrisome trend: Customers who were put off by the insurance marketplaces' early troubles are proving hard sells. Many people thwarted by the technical problems of HealthCare.gov are reluctant to try again, citing frustration with the federal site, web-security concerns and the pressure of the holidays, several insurers say (Martin and Weaver, 12/19).

Politico: White House Broadens Obamacare Exemptions
Millions of Americans who had their health plans cancelled will be exempt from the Obamacare individual mandate, the administration said Thursday — a surprise move that comes just before Monday’s deadline to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1. The administration also said people who had their plans cancelled could get a scaled-back catastrophic plan, which has more limited benefits than those included in other Obamacare health plans. The move prompted sharp criticism from Republicans and concern from the insurance industry that another last-minute change would disrupt coverage and lead to tumult in the new marketplaces (Haberkorn and Budoff Brown, 12/20).

Los Angeles Times: Health Insurance Cancellation Notices Leave 500,000 Uncovered
Fewer than 500,000 people who received health insurance cancellation notices have not yet signed up for new coverage, Obama administration officials said Thursday. The senior administration officials said they had arrived at the estimate over weeks of contacting insurers and combing through the administration’s own enrollment data (Hennessey, 12/19).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: 500K With Canceled Health Plans Lack Coverage
The cancellations have become a nagging problem for the White House. President Barack Obama repeatedly promised that people who liked their insurance could keep it under the new health law (12/19).

Los Angeles Times: State Healthcare Exchange Reports Share Increase In Enrollment
California's health insurance exchange reported sharply higher enrollment ahead of Monday's sign-up deadline for Jan. 1 coverage, amid mounting criticism over how it handles consumer privacy. The Covered California exchange said Thursday that 53,510 people enrolled in health plans over a three-day period this week, culminating with more than 20,000 people picking an insurance company on Wednesday alone. Last week, about 15,000 people were enrolling daily (Terhune, 12/19).

The Washington Post: Gansler: Maryland’s Health Exchange Reminds Him Of ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketch
Gansler, a Democratic candidate for governor, has been highly critical of the role played by his rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), in overseeing the implementation of the federal health care law in Maryland. Brown co-chairs a council that has guided reforms in the state but has said he was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the exchange (Wagner, 12/19).

The New York Times: With Obama Now In Need, Aides Put Off Their Exits
In any White House, the end of the year typically brings staff changes, especially as exhaustion sets in during the later years of an administration. But the Obama team has been as tested as any in decades: by economic calamity, the winding down of two wars, an expansive domestic agenda, various international crises and, lately, the trouble-filled execution of the most ambitious health care program since Medicare. Controversy over the health care law has helped drive Mr. Obama’s approval ratings to new lows, a trend that the White House is scrambling to reverse. Longtime aides who stayed with the president into the second term — thinking that they would remain for months or a year to help with the transition — are now feeling pressured to extend their service, officials said (Calmes, 12/19).

Politico: For Obamacare Boosters, All Memes Are Good Memes
When it comes to marketing Obamacare, all memes are good memes. So say progressive activists and Democratic strategists, pushing back against a wave of fresh criticism that mocks their youth outreach efforts as somewhere between slightly awkward and totally tone-deaf (Tau, 12/19).

Politico: ‘Tis The Season For Health And Taxes
Firms like Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block are offering health insurance checkups during the 2014 tax preparation season to explain Obamacare options to their customers, many of whom will qualify for federal tax credits to help afford health coverage but may not know it. The firms are partnering with web insurance brokers who will help people sign up as they’re filing their taxes — which in turn gives them cash on hand from tax refunds to help them pay their share of the premiums (Cunningham, 12/19).

USA Today: Study: Routine Costs, Not Law, Lead To Most New Increases
Routine costs, not requirements of the Affordable Care Act, contributed to the majority of health insurance rate increases in the last year, a new study released Thursday shows. "It wasn't driven by utilization of the services, but the unit costs," said Mike McCue, lead author of the study by The Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit group devoted to improving health services for Americans. "That will continue to be a major driver moving forward — trying to control those medical expenses — if they want to remain profitable" (Kennedy, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Medicare Auditors Urged To Check Doctors' Total Billing To Prevent Fraud
Flagging doctors who bill more than $3 million a year could help prevent overbilling and save Medicare millions of dollars each year, said the report set to be released Friday by the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama administration officials said they were considering implementing the report's suggestions as part of efforts to root out Medicare fraud (Schatz, 12/20).

NPR: Poll: Americans Favor Age Restrictions On Morning-After Pill
Emergency contraception has been embroiled in controversy pretty much from the start. But this year the legal wrangling over who can buy the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill without a prescription came to an end. A federal judge in New York ruled in April that the morning-after pill also had to be made available over the counter to girls 16 and under (Hensley, 12/19).

The New York Times: Tackling A Racial Gap In Breast Cancer Survival
Like many other African-American women in Memphis and around the country, Ms. Reid learned about her breast cancer after it had already reached an advanced stage, making it difficult to treat and reducing her odds of survival. Her story reflects one of the most troubling disparities in American health care. Despite 20 years of pink ribbon awareness campaigns and numerous advances in medical treatment that have sharply improved survival rates for women with breast cancer in the United States, the vast majority of those gains have largely bypassed black women (Parker-Pope, 12/20).

Los Angeles Times: Steinberg Seeks To Restore Mental Health Funds For Criminals
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Thursday that he will seek to restore a state program that funded county services for mentally ill people who run afoul of the law. After a decade of state funding, the Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction Grants ceased in 2008 due to budget cuts. Steinberg wants to restore funding, starting with $50 million in the next budget year. But that money is contingent on whether Gov. Jerry Brown receives a delay in a federal court order to reduce state prison crowding (St. John, 12/19).

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