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Enrolling In The ACA Is A Little Harder This Year


President Trump said on Saturday that he's open to a temporary deal with Democrats on health care. Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said they'd work with the White House to fix the Affordable Care Act, not to replace it. So for now, the ACA continues, and open enrollment begins in November. But this year, the Trump administration is making that process harder by telling the regional directors of Health and Human Services not to get involved in open enrollment events.

That might not sound like much, but our next guest says it undermines the health care law. Emily Barson was a former director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at HHS, and she joins me in the studio. Good morning.

EMILY BARSON: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You organized 13 former HHS regional directors to send a letter to the acting HHS secretary, Don Wright. Tell us what's in that letter. And why did you feel that you needed to write it?

BARSON: Sure. When we saw the recent stories that HHS is sidelining the regional directors from working with states and stakeholders on open enrollment, I thought it was outrageous, frankly. And I organized the letter, which was signed by 13 former regional directors from the Obama administration who conducted outreach throughout the implementation of the ACA, in an effort to ask the administration to reverse that decision.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why outrageous?

BARSON: The role that the regional directors play is an important one in linking the states and communities in their regions to the federal government in convening and helping to coordinate local enrollment plans and maximize enrollment. And the ACA, as you noted, is still the law of the land, and it's this administration's responsibility to implement it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Will it really undermine the law if the regional directors aren't involved? I mean, this has been the law of the land for some time. People do know that they need to enroll.

BARSON: Well, this isn't just about their appearance at individual events. This is really about the role the regional directors played in convening and coordinating stakeholders to maximize enrollment, and now they're being told not to. So in effect, there's no representative of the federal government working with these folks on the ground who want to assist with open enrollment. And really, this action is just another example of a pattern of sabotage by the Trump administration to deliberately cause the ACA to fail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that your view? I mean, definitely critics of this move and others say that the calculation here is to let the Affordable Care Act wither on the vine. Do you think that's what's being done here?

BARSON: Absolutely. You know, this is, as I said, another example of a pattern of sabotage, including cutting the enrollment period in half and slashing the budget for enrollment assistance and for promotion of the law through the media. And that's the reason that, this week, some fellow former Obama administration officials launched Get America Covered, an outreach and education campaign for open enrollment to attempt to fill in some of the gaps left by the administration's inaction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you had a response from this letter?

BARSON: We have not had a response from the letter from the administration, but we have had an overwhelming response to the launch of this new campaign, which just really further demonstrates that there is a need for this type of outreach work that just isn't being done by the administration this time around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think needs to happen?

BARSON: Well, you know, I don't think that this outside effort can fill in all the gaps that the federal government is leaving, but we also couldn't sit on the sidelines. So we are going to be doing everything we can to spread the word that open enrollment kicks off on November 1, that there's only one deadline this year on December 15 and that people should go and shop around and get enrolled. We know we won't be able to replace all the functions the government should be doing, but we're going to be doing everything we can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Emily Barson is the former director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at HHS and currently senior adviser to the Get America Covered campaign. Thanks for being with us.

BARSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.