The head of a federal agency overseeing the Affordable Care Act repeatedly brushed aside questions at a House oversight hearing Wednesday on whether there is a backup plan should the law be struck down in court.
Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was grilled by House Democrats who have charged the Trump administration deliberately sabotaged the ACA and adopted policies that would leave more people without coverage. The number of uninsured Americans jumped last year to 27.5 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau.
The Trump administration pushed changes seeking to undermine the law, including repealing the individual mandate requiring people buy health insurance and reducing the open enrollment period.
The hearing represented an opportunity for Democrats to directly question a top Trump administration official on healthcare, a galvanizing issue for voters ahead of the 2020 elections. It was Verma's first appearance before the Democratic-led House.
"Does the president have a plan, and what is the plan?" asked Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey. "It sounds almost as though there is some kind of secret plan that he doesn't want to reveal."
Verma replied that she wasn't going to "get into any specifics of the plan but the president's agenda on healthcare has been in action from day one."
After Pallone pressed her again, Verma responded: ""We have planned for a number of different scenarios but we need to hear from the courts."
Business Insider asked for more details on the contingency planning, but the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services pointed to Verma's testimony on Capitol Hill.
President Donald Trump and other officials assert there are contingencies in place if the entirety or large chunks of the law is overturned by a federal court in New Orleans. 20 GOP-led states have sued to invalidate the law — which now covers over 20 million Americans — and the Trump administration has sided with them.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the Wall Street Journal as the ruling is likely to be stayed — meaning it would remain in effect pending appeal — there is no reason for immediate concern. "Our message is to keep calm and carry on," he said.
Lawmakers in four states — Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and California — are preparing their own alternate plans if the ACA is struck down, the Journal reported.
At the hearing, Verma pointed to some successes of her tenure, including lower Obamacare premiums next year, expanded access to cheaper insurance plans and reduced regulatory burdens.
The Medicaid chief also had a combative exchange with Democratic Sen. Joe Kennedy of Massachussetts over work requirements. He referred to a study that found 18,000 people lost their Medicaid coverage in Arkansas as a result of the mandate and pressed her to declare whether it was a success.
Verma said "it was premature to draw conclusions" from Arkansas. Visibly frustrated, Kennedy fired back: "How many more people have to lose their healthcare before you make a determination?"
The Trump administration has pushed states to adopt work requirements for Medicaid. arguing it will lift people out of poverty and pushing them towards self-reliance.
But its rollout has been messy, and several states are ensnared in legal battles over the mandate. A recent study from the Government Accountability Office found earlier this month that five states wasted over $400 million in taxpayer money in paperwork and other administrative costs while enacting the job mandate.