Amid conflict, Doggett fears Obamacare signups will slip

Some local health care proponents — including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett — say they fear fewer people may sign up for insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act this year when open enrollment begins Nov. 1, even though the law remains standing despite high-profile Republican efforts to repeal it.

Open enrollment for medical coverage that begins Jan. 1 will last six weeks through Dec. 15, compared to a three-month enrollment period in previous years. In addition, the Trump administration — which opposes the law — has cut the federal advertising budget to promote enrollment by 90 percent, to $10 million.

“They seem determined to sabotage it because they can’t repeal it,” said Doggett, D-Austin, speaking at an Tuesday event at Austin’s Capital Factory to plug the upcoming start of enrollment. “There is not an effort nationally through the federal government to promote the Affordable Care Act” this year.

Regardless, consumers in the Austin area will have a new entrant in the local insurance market to choose from when open enrollment begins Nov. 1.

Oscar Health — a five-year-old startup with a variety of big-name backers, including Google — will be expanding into Travis, Williamson, Hays and Comal counties for 2018. New York-based Oscar Health also operates in Bexar County, which encompasses San Antonio.

Mario Schlosser, Oscar Health’s chief executive, said during Tuesday’s event that the company’s local hospital network is built around the Seton and Baylor Scott and White systems, while it has built its own local network of primary-care physicians and specialists that includes the Austin Regional Clinic.

Despite “all the political issues” surrounding health care, Schlosser said he’s optimistic about the sector because he views it as increasingly consumer-driven and ripe for innovation.

Oscar Health is using technology — such as telemedicine — to attempt to improve medical outcomes and bring down costs by proactively interacting with its customers and linking them with the care they need, he said.

Schlosser started Oscar Health with Joshua Kushner, the younger brother of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law. The company is named Oscar Health after Kushner’s great-grandfather and because it sounds congenial, Schlosser said.

But despite the White House connections, he said Oscar Health has no special pull or insight into the Trump Administration’s health care strategy. He said he’s confident consumers will be able to purchase health insurance and access quality medical care no matter how the debate turns out.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think the federal government will let 15 million people (who are estimated to have received insurance through the Affordable Care Act) go back on the streets,” he said. “I don’t think the clock will get turned back on 15 million people.”

Doggett, who applauded Oscar Health’s entrance into the local insurance market, said Tuesday that he’s hopeful a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to try to stabilize insurance markets and improve health care will gain some traction, after the latest GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act — known as Obamacare — collapsed last month.

U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., had been attempting to craft a bipartisan plan before their attempt was sidelined during the recent repeal push.

In the interim, Doggett said, consumers in the Austin area and elsewhere should avail themselves of the opportunity during the upcoming Affordable Care Act enrollment period to gain valuable health insurance that guarantees coverage for pre-existing conditions and other critical medical needs.

Jamie Dudensing, chief executive of the Texas Association of Health Plans, concurred with Doggett during Tuesday’s event that the lack of a push from the federal government during this year’s enrollment period could reduce the public’s awareness of it and result in some people not signing up in time.

“We’re hoping that consumers are going to still come out” and enroll, she said. But “there were much longer time periods to purchase (insurance) in the past.”

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