GOP Irked by New Delay of Obamacare Mandate

GOP Irked by New Delay of Obamacare Mandate
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It took mere minutes Monday before howls of GOP outrage circulated through Washington.

The Obama administration is “unilaterally making it up as they go along,” protested Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus after learning the administration used executive “discretion” Monday to delay until 2016 the Affordable Care Act’s mandates for mid-size employers.

The newest alterations, issued Monday by the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service, grant medium-sized and larger businesses longer transition periods to comply with the 2010 law -- changes that will ease pressures on many employers (but not individuals) well past the midterm elections this fall.

The requirements could soften complaints from businesses and make it easier for vulnerable Democratic candidates to sidestep the uncertainties and at least some of the unhappy narratives blamed on the health law by employers, insurers, medical professionals and some workers.

The law’s provisions, which the administration says it can interpret and adjust, were written by Congress and are implemented by the Health and Human Services Department and enforced by the IRS through regulatory rules drafted with input from stakeholders.

At nearly the moment Treasury announced its new 2015 regulations for “Implementing Employer Shared Responsibility” under the health law, President Obama happened to be gazing at a Virginia landscape from a terrace at Monticello. He was standing alongside visiting President François Hollande of France.

"That's the good thing as a president,” Obama joked as he rearranged the diplomatic choreography so he could enjoy a particular vista Thomas Jefferson once loved. “I can do whatever I want," he said, as reporters trailed after the two leaders.

And therein lies one of the GOP’s chief political gripes: When it comes to the nationally unpopular and administratively troubled Affordable Care Act, is it correct that Obama can do what he wants?

House Speaker John Boehner complained that if the president could use the “whim” of his own edicts to give employers more time to adapt to the complex law, what about millions of individuals who are required this year to either have or buy health insurance before March 31, or pay a fine?

“If the administration doesn’t believe employers can manage the burden of the law, how can struggling families be expected to?” Boehner said in a statement. “This continued manipulation by the president breeds confusion and erodes Americans’ confidence in him and his health care law.”

Just days ago, the speaker said his conference was distrustful enough of the administration that GOP lawmakers thought it best in an election year to put off any action on immigration fixes. In 2012, the president opted not to deport children of undocumented immigrants, relying on a Department of Homeland Security enforcement waiver. And in 2011, Obama said the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and ordered the Justice Department not to enforce it.

House Republicans insist Obama has become too fond of working around Congress and federal statutes in his eagerness to gain traction on a Democratic agenda he can’t otherwise budge.

Republicans greeted Monday’s news from Treasury as another blow to a dwindling reservoir of trust in Washington -- even though many lawmakers have argued for exactly the sort of ACA leeway for employers granted by the administration on Monday.

“House Republicans opposed Obamacare when it was passed precisely because of the negative effects the president is now trying to hide,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, stopping short of demanding the law’s repeal. “It’s time to stop creating more chaos and delay Obamacare for all Americans."

The administration, interpreting the law, has said employers who have 50 or more full-time workers must offer their employees qualified health coverage, or pay a penalty in 2015. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the law and its paperwork requirements.

But on Monday, Treasury granted medium-sized businesses (those with 50-99 employees) until 2016 to offer health coverage, tasking them to report on their progress by 2015. Companies with 100 or more employees also gained a longer phase-in period, to 2016, before they have to cover at least 95 percent of their full-time workers. They have to show they’ve covered 70 percent of their workers by next year, or pay a penalty, Treasury said.

The changes are intended, in part, to discourage employers this year and next from holding down the growth of their companies, or trimming the number of worker hours per week to avoid the definition of “full time.” Both have been cited as end-runs used by employers to duck the coverage requirements.

Acknowledging some of the law’s unintended consequences, Treasury said the changes in the final IRS rules would help “employers that, for example, may offer coverage to employees with 35 or more hours, but not yet to that fraction of their employees who work 30 to 34 hours.”

Scrambling to respond to website problems and insufficient federal preparations last year, HHS postponed for a year the ACA’s large-employer mandate, and also said individuals could keep or buy insurance plans that don’t comply with law’s minimum requirements, at least through 2015 and perhaps beyond.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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