Democrats take aim at Trump administration’s expanded short-term health plans

Healthcare remains a key priority for Democrats in Congress—and they’re now putting a spotlight on so-called junk insurance plans touted by the Trump administration. 

The Department of Health and Human Services has expanded access to short-term health plans and association health plans as alternatives to coverage found on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, but these plans have been criticized for skimpy coverage and misleading marketing. 

On Thursday, four Democratic senators unveiled a bill that would block the administration from promoting these plans. The legislation comes on the heels of a House bill (PDF) that would attach consumer warnings to such plans. 

“The Trump administration has re-written the rules on guaranteed healthcare protections that millions depend on,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement.  

“Anyone who says they support healthcare coverage for people with pre-existing conditions should support this legislation—this is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to protect people’s access to quality, affordable healthcare when they need it most,” Baldwin said. 

RELATED: Association health plans take center stage at House hearing on protections for pre-existing conditions 

Administration officials say that short-term health plans offer additional choices for people as premiums and costs rise for ACA plans. HHS Secretary Alex Azar has characterized the plans as alternatives for people “left out” of the current market. 

However, critics from across the healthcare system have warned that these plans, which do not have to comply with the ACA’s essential health benefits, could leave people with pre-existing conditions unknowingly underinsured.  

In a statement (PDF) submitted to Congress for a hearing Wednesday on the matter, America’s Health Insurance plans said it supports the goal of adding options but that these plans need to be clearly marketed to consumers. 

RELATED: Healthcare industry lambastes Trump administration’s short-term health plan proposal 

"We are concerned that consumers who rely on short-term plans for an extended time period will face high medical bills when they exceed their coverage limits or need care that is not covered,” AHIP said. “In addition, we believe it is essential for consumers to clearly understand what their plan does and does not cover.” 

And recent research suggests that marketing for these plans is confusing, if not deceptive. A study from the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute found that many of these plans are marketed as ACA-compliant, even if they offer fewer benefits than exchange plans. 

Short-term plans also dominate the search results for people turning to Google ahead of open enrollment, the study found. During open enrollment, just 19% of search results linked to actual exchange plans, and ahead of open enrollment, just 1% of search results linked to those plans instead of short-term options. 

Even across the aisle, experts acknowledged that there’s work to be done to ensure that consumers understand these plans and their benefits more fully. Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a free market-focused think tank, noted this in her testimony (PDF) at Wednesday’s hearing. 

“The plans are not required to cover the comprehensive list of benefits required by the ACA, and consumer education is important in understanding how they differ from ACA-compliant plans,” Turner said.