With concerns rising over the future of financial aid for low-income Americans who rely on Obamacare, senior congressional Democrats have asked the Trump administration for information on talks in which health insurance officials say a senior administration official linked the aid to the industry's support for House Republican legislation to roll back the healthcare law.
The talks, first reported by The Times last week, occurred in April when a group of industry leaders met with Seema Verma, a President Trump appointee who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and oversees Obamacare insurance markets.
Health insurers were seeking assurances from Verma that the Trump administration would continue to provide the aid, which helps millions of low-income Americans afford their deductibles and co-pays.
The aid, which reimburses insurers for lowering out-of-pocket costs, was paid by the Obama administration. It now is the subject of a lawsuit by congressional Republicans, who argue that Congress must approve the payments.
Trump and his aides have repeatedly threatened to withhold the assistance — known as cost-sharing reduction payments, or CSRs — a move that health insurers warn would sabotage insurance markets across the country.
At the April meeting, according to multiple industry officials interviewed by The Times, Verma linked the aid to the House repeal legislation, telling insurers the aid wouldn't be paid until the House bill passed, while also asking health insurers to endorse the bill.
The suggestion that the payments were connected to the industry's support for the Republican bill stunned industry officials.
"It made no sense," one told The Times.
Jane Norris, a spokeswoman for the health agency, said The Times' account was "completely false."
"The assertion that Administrator Verma offered to fund the CSR in exchange for support for legislation is preposterous," she said. "What she said at the ... meeting in April was that no decisions had been made about CSRs."
But the senior congressional Democrats said they were concerned about the potential abuse of power.
"Your reported actions suggest you are using the operation of the American healthcare system as a tool to gain leverage in political negotiations," the lawmakers wrote to Verma.
"It is wholly inappropriate for you to use federally appropriated money intended to lower the cost of quality, affordable healthcare as a bargaining chip to garner political support for unpopular legislation being negotiated behind closed doors by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans."
Among other things, the lawmakers asked about any additional discussions in which Trump administration officials suggested a quid pro quo for support of the House Republican repeal bill.
The letter was written by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee; Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Health Committee; Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.