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Amid Constituent Backlash, GOP to Punt Repeal of Popular Obamacare Benefits to Agency

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

Congressional Republicans seem unwilling to take on more heat about their embattled goals to repeal the ACA and defund Planned Parenthood, leaving the dirty work to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Congressional Republicans repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will leave it to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to gut “essential health benefits,” seemingly including the popular birth control benefit, a GOP congressman confirmed Thursday.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), perhaps best known for his 2013 comments alleging that masturbating fetuses prove the need for an abortion ban, told the audience on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that “some of the things that people want to see gone will not be gone under reconciliation”—the fledgling fast-track progress Republicans are using to undo the ACA.

“We actually don’t touch the essential health benefits,” said Burgess, who chairs a U.S. House of Representatives panel, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee, which will help guide reconciliation.

The ACA, also known as Obamacare, requires most insurers to cover a set of ten categories of health services known as “essential health benefits.” These benefits include pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care, as well as preventive and wellness services. The health-care law’s birth control benefit, which requires insurers to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraceptives, is considered one of these preventive services.

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“Another part” of ACA repeal will occur at the agency level, Burgess said, touting his hour-long meeting with anti-choice HHS Secretary Tom Price on Thursday before addressing CPAC.

“There is a great deal that can be done on the regulatory side,” Burgess said.

Burgess’ comments could signal that Republicans in the House and U.S. Senate are unwilling to take on more heat about their embattled goals to repeal the ACA and defund Planned Parenthood. Constituents shouting down congressional Republicans have led many GOP lawmakers to cancel regularly scheduled town hall meetings in their home districts this week or distance themselves from the Trump administration’s agenda.

HHS has always had the power to unilaterally ax the birth control benefit: They could simply declassify contraceptives as preventive care before the ink dries on ACA repeal. Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), interim chair of the House Budget Committee, said Republicans won’t replace the popular birth control benefit.

Republican leaders in the House last week released an outline of a so-called plan to replace Obama’s health-care law. The document made no mentions of essential health benefits, and only mentioned preventive services within the context of high-risk pools. It did, however, note that party officials believe that “President Trump and HHS Secretary Price have an important role to play in providing relief from Obamacare’s burdensome regulations.”

Many Republican “plans” and proposals to replace the ACA “would eliminate the essential benefits standard for individual and small-group [insurance] policies,” according to a January analysis by the Washington Post.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said during a CNN town hall event in January that the GOP doesn’t “want to make people buy something that they don’t want to buy. We don’t want to force them to buy all these different benefits.”

Burgess assured the crowd that Congress “will get reconciliation done,” even though former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) almost concurrently told a health-care conference that it won’t happen.

Repealing and replacing the ACA amounts to nothing more than “happy talk,” Boehner said.

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