WASHINGTON — Brushing aside a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House voted by a healthy bipartisan majority Friday to weaken a core component of “Obamacare” and permit the sale of individual health insurance that falls short of requirements in the law.
In all, 39 Democrats broke ranks and supported the legislation, a total that underscored the growing importance of the issue in the weeks since millions of cancellation notices went out to consumers covered by plans deemed inadequate under government rules.
The final vote was 261-157 as lawmakers clashed over an issue likely to be at the heart of next year’s midterm elections. The measure faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Democrats seeking re-election in 2014 are leading a move for generally similar legislation.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the lead sponsor of the legislation, said, “Our straightforward, one-page bill says, if you like your current coverage, you should be able to keep it. The president should heed his own advice and work with us, the Congress, as the founders intended, not around the legislative process.”
But Democrats said the measure is just another in a long line of attacks on the health care bill from Republicans who have voted repeatedly to repeal it.
The vote came shortly before President Obama welcomed insurance company CEOs to a White House meeting, and one day after he announced a shift toward making good on his oft-repeated promise that those who like their pre-Obamacare coverage will be able to keep it.
In brief opening remarks, he did not refer to the House vote, and showed no give in his commitment to the program. “Because of choice and competition, a whole lot of Americans who have always seen health insurance out of reach are going to be in a position to purchase it,” he said.
The events capped a remarkable series of politically inspired maneuvers in recent days. The president and lawmakers in both parties have sought to position themselves as allies of consumers who are receiving cancellation notices – yet have made no move to cooperate on legislation that could require those consumers’ coverage to be renewed if they wanted to keep it.
Neither Obama’s new policy nor the bill passed in the House would ensure that anyone whose policy is canceled will be able to keep it. Instead, both would permit insurance companies to sell coverage renewals if they wish – subject to approval by state insurance commissioners.
The White House meeting came as the industry and state commissioners began adjusting to the president’s one-day-old change in policy.
Under the shift, Obama said insurers should be permitted to continue to sell to existing customers individual coverage plans that would be deemed substandard under the health care law.
Without the change, many existing plans would have been banned beginning next year, and the president’s announcement was an attempt to quell a public and political furor triggered by millions of cancellation notices.
The House measure went one step further.
It would give insurance firms the ability to sell individual plans to new as well as existing customers, even if the coverage falls short of the law’s requirements.
Mainers with individual health insurance plans that are set to be canceled or modified next year will have to wait at least until next week to find out whether they will be eligible for extensions, a state official said Friday.
In Maine, the policy change could provide one-year extensions to more than 15,000 individual and small-group policy holders whose current plans fall short of Affordable Care Act requirements, such as those with deductibles exceeding $6,350.
But a spokesman for the state Bureau of Insurance said regulators and insurance companies in Maine need more time to examine the potential impact of allowing the extensions.
“Everyone is working as quickly and carefully as possible to consider all of its aspects,” said Doug Dunbar. “Conversations with insurers and others will continue early next week.”
Dan Bernier, a lobbyist for the insurance industry, said the delay shows that Maine regulators are weighing their options carefully. “It’s good they’re taking their time to think about this.”
Staff Writer J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.