President Trump’s health care plan has become one of the most highly anticipated, hotly debated documents in Washington. And depending on whom you ask, it might not exist at all.
The contents — and the whereabouts — of the health plan have been a growing mystery since 2017, when efforts to pass a White House-backed replacement for Obamacare stalled in the Senate. Since then, Trump has repeatedly vowed to unveil a new health plan. In July, it was said to be two weeks away. On Aug. 3, Trump said the plan would be revealed at the end of that month. Last month, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said it would be released within two weeks. At other points, Trump has suggested the plan is already complete. That shifting schedule has lent Trump’s health plan an almost mythical status.
The mystery surrounding the president’s vision for health care has added urgency because the Supreme Court is currently scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case that could decide the future of former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law on Nov. 10, exactly one week after the election. That case was brought by Republican attorneys general and joined by the Trump administration. The argument that Obamacare is unconstitutional could lead to the current health care framework being struck down, but Trump has yet to present an alternative.
With both the election and the court date looming, questions about Trump’s health care plan have intensified on the campaign trail. And the White House’s answers have only added to the uncertainty.
During the first presidential debate last month, Trump was pressed by Fox News moderator Chris Wallace about the fact he has “never in these four years come up with a plan, a comprehensive plan, to replace Obamacare.”
“Yes, I have,” Trump replied. “Of course I have.”
He was apparently referring to the Republican tax bill passed in 2017 that eliminated the tax penalty for individuals who did not purchase health insurance, or obtain it through their jobs or government assistance. That so-called individual mandate was a critical part of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, meant to ensure that even healthy people would buy health insurance and spread the costs out across the population. Other parts of the Affordable Care Act remain in place, but the Republican lawsuit argues that without the mandate the entire program should be overturned.
That could end the most popular feature of Obamacare: the requirement that insurance companies provide affordable coverage for preexisting conditions. While Trump has repeatedly insisted he wants to maintain that protection, any details of his plan or evidence of how he would do it have remained elusive.
During the final debate last week, Democratic nominee Joe Biden argued that the administration “has no plan for health care.”
“He’s been promising a health care plan since he got elected. He has none,” Biden said of Trump. “Like almost everything else he talks about, he does not have a plan. He doesn’t have a plan. And the fact is, this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The issue also came up during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, when Vice President Mike Pence said, “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect preexisting conditions for every American.”
“Obamacare was a disaster, and the American people remember it well,” Pence said.
But Trump seemed to admit during last week’s debate that his plan is more of a dream than a concrete proposal.
“What I would like to do is a much better health care, much better,” he said, adding, “I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand-new, beautiful health care.”
However, by the end of last weekend, the idea of a written, completed Trump health plan was back on the table — literally.
During the president’s contentious “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday, host Lesley Stahl asked Trump about his repeated promises of a health plan coming imminently.
“Why didn’t you develop a health plan?” Stahl asked.
“It is developed,” Trump responded. “It is fully developed. It’s going to be announced very soon.”
And after Trump ended the interview and walked out on Stahl, McEnany, the White House press secretary, came in and handed the “60 Minutes” correspondent a massive binder.
“Lesley, the president wanted me to deliver his health care plan,” McEnany said. “It’s a little heavy.”
Indeed, Stahl struggled with the huge book. The situation seemed reminiscent of other instances where Trump tried to dissuade debate by presenting massive piles of paper that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, and it sparked speculation that the contents of the massive binder were blank. However, the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper subsequently reported it contained more than 500 pages comprising “13 executive orders and 11 other pieces of healthcare legislation enacted under Trump.”
Stahl was unimpressed. After perusing the gigantic tome, she declared, “It was heavy, filled with executive orders, congressional initiatives, but no comprehensive health plan.”
McEnany took issue with that assessment and shot back with a tweet that declared, “@60Minutes is misleading you!!”
“Notice they don’t mention that I gave Leslie 2 documents: a book of all President @realDonaldTrump has done & a plan of all he is going to do on healthcare — the America First Healthcare Plan which will deliver lower costs, more choice, better care,” the press secretary wrote.
McEnany had implied one of Washington’s most wanted documents was printed, bound and ready for review. It even had a name! Were we really this close to seeing the Trump health plan?
After Yahoo News requested a copy of the “health care plan” that she presented to Stahl, McEnany provided a statement detailing the contents of the enormous binder.
“The book contains all of the executive orders and legislation President Trump has signed,” McEnany said.
She credited those actions with “lowering health care premiums and drug costs” compared with where they were under Obama and Vice President Biden. Trump has previously claimed premiums and costs have gone down during his administration, but these assertions aren’t entirely backed up by the data. And many of Trump’s executive orders on health care have been largely symbolic.
McEnany also provided us with a copy of the second document that she described on Twitter and Stahl had supposedly ignored. It was a 10-page report (including front and back covers) with a large-print, bullet-pointed list of highlights from Trump’s previous actions on health care and slogans making promises for the future.
“The America First Healthcare Plan lays out President Trump’s second term vision animated by the principles that have brought us lower cost, more choice and better care,” McEnany said.
The White House’s immense binder clearly didn’t contain Trump’s “health care plan” as McEnany declared during the dramatic on-camera delivery. But it did hold a fragment of the president’s policy vision.
Perhaps more pieces of the puzzle could be found on Capitol Hill. After all, in April 2019, Trump proclaimed on Twitter that “the Republicans … are developing a really great HealthCare Plan.” That comment followed reports that a group of Republican senators including Mitt Romney of Utah, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Rick Scott of Florida and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana were working on drafting a proposal. Trump said this plan would “be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare.” The president further suggested it would be complete and ready to be voted on “right after the election.”
So is there a finished plan floating around Capitol Hill ready to make its debut in a matter of weeks? No.
A Republican Senate source who has been privy to the talks told Yahoo News that a group of GOP senators including Romney, Barrasso, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have been “exploring” an alternative to Obamacare “over the course of the past year and a half.” However, with the coronavirus pandemic and a Supreme Court confirmation dominating the agenda, the source, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, suggested the planning had stalled.
“I don’t think they’ve talked about this stuff for months now due to other pressing issues,” the source said of the health care planning.
The source predicted that activity on health care would not resume until the outcome of the election and the Supreme Court’s Obamacare case are clear.
“Depending on how things in November shake out and … what the Supreme Court does with the ACA, maybe those discussions will be revived,” the source said. “But there really has not been much going on of late.”
Nevertheless, the source contended that, even though there is no finished plan, Trump and his Republican allies on the Hill have made some real progress toward “a potential plan that would preserve private insurance but also seek to lower costs.” They suggested Senate efforts to lower drug prices and end surprise medical billing are part of the “frameworks,” as are some of the executive orders issued by Trump.
“There have been sort of piecemeal efforts in this area. … The executive branch has done what they can do within their authority to try to lower costs,” the source said. “There just hasn’t been … a wholesale piece of legislation or framework that everyone has coalesced around. That’s just something that has not come together.”
In the end, perhaps the truest answer to the ongoing mystery of Trump’s proposed Obamacare replacement came from the president himself during the “60 Minutes” interview. In the conversation, Trump suggested that his health plan exists in a realm beyond the bounds of space and time.
“A new plan will happen,” he said. “Will and is.”
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