Change to Obamacare affects about 150,000 in South Carolina

  • Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2013 5:11 p.m., Updated: Friday, November 15, 2013 9:02 a.m.
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Bowing to pressure, Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday.

About 150,000 South Carolinians may have the choice to keep their current individual health insurance policies.

President Barack Obama announced the fundamental change to the Affordable Care Act on Thursday. Bowing to political pressure, he decided that insurance companies can continue to offer plans that the new law had previously deemed sub-par.

The S.C. Department of Insurance estimates that about 150,000 residents in this state have received notices that their policies would be canceled under the old rules.

Mount Pleasant resident Ryan Nelson was one of them.

“I don’t know who changed (Obama’s) mind … but I’m glad it’s changed,” said Nelson, who owns a public relations agency.

Nelson was notified by Cigna in July that her plan would be canceled on Dec. 31.

She tried shopping for another policy on HealthCare.gov, but like millions of others who have tried to use the website since it launched on Oct. 1, it wasn’t working.

“I’m a business owner and a new mom; I don’t have hours and hours to spend researching this,” she said.

Nelson said she’ll keep her Cigna policy given the choice, even though the administration’s decision will only extend the policy for another year.

“Right now I feel too rushed,” she said. “My plan isn’t perfect. ... It’s worked for me for the past couple years — and I would rather spend more time researching it.”

Obama has been under enormous pressure from congressional Democrats to give ground on the cancellation issue under the health care overhaul, a program likely to be at the center of next year’s midterm elections for control of the House and Senate.

Nelson’s Cigna plan would have covered her through the end of the year regardless of the policy shift, but it’s unclear what the impact of Thursday’s changes will be for the millions of people who have already had their plans canceled. While officials said insurance companies will now be able to offer those people the option to renew their old plans, companies are not required to take that step.

The decision to continue offering plans that would have otherwise been canceled will be left up to individual states and their insurance commissioners, according to The New York Times.

“We will not do anything to stand in the way of consumers getting their choice of coverage,” said Ray Farmer, director of the S.C. Insurance Department. “We don’t intend to ... (enforce) federal rules that the federal government won’t even enforce.”

Farmer said the policy shift “just adds more confusion to an extremely confusing issue already. Our consumers are going to be confused. Our companies are probably confused. We will attempt to talk to our carriers and bring some uniformity to the issue.”

A spokeswoman for BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, the largest private insurance company in the state, said Thursday’s announcement is confusing.

“Because of the complexity and interrelationships within the ACA, it is impossible to determine the impact of the President’s proposal without seeing the regulations or guidelines for implementing the new approach,” said BlueCross spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan, in a prepared statement. “Moreover, we have to ensure that our actions align with the position of the state’s department of insurance.”

Insurance companies will be required to inform consumers who want to keep canceled plans about the protections that are not included under those plans. Customers will also be notified that new options are available offering more coverage and in some cases, tax credits to cover higher premiums.

Under Obama’s plan, insurance companies would not be allowed to sell coverage deemed sub-par under the law to new customers, marking a difference with legislation that House Republicans intend to put to a vote on Friday.

Only last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a Senate panel she doubted that retroactively permitting insurers to sell canceled policies “can work very well since companies are now in the market with an array of new plans. Many have actually added consumer protections in the last three-and-a-half years.”

House Speaker John Boehner, speaking in advance of the president’s announcement, insisted it was time to “scrap this law once and for all.”

“You can’t fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare . ... It’s just not fixable.”

A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley’s office also was critical of the announcement, but said the state government will not stand in the way of consumers keeping their current policies.

“They never should have lost them in the first place, and should be able to keep them far beyond this one year ‘fix’ that President Obama is proposing,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., disagreed with conservative critics that the president’s announcement only offers a short-term solution.

“It’s not kicking the can down the road at all. If the issue is your being able to hold onto the policy that you think you like, this allows you to continue that,” Clyburn said.

Post and Courier reporter Schuler Kropf and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: A earlier version of this story reported that 150,000 South Carolina residents who had received cancellations for their individual insurance policies would have a choice to renew those policies. The decision to continue offering those health plans will be left to insurance companies. The article has been updated to reflect this clarification.

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