GOP senators propose individual mandate penalty exemption

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With fewer health insurers set to compete next year in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, a group of GOP senators have introduced legislation they say will protect consumers from “Obamacare monopolies.”

The bill--introduced by Arizona Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake and Tom Cotton; Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse; Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson; and Wyoming Sen. John Barasso--would exempt people who live in a county with one or no health insurers offering ACA plans from paying the penalty for remaining uninsured.

Arizona, in particular, has been a flashpoint for the debate over the future of the ACA, as the pullout of Aetna and UnitedHealth meant Pinal County was set to be without a single ACA exchange carrier before Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona stepped in to offer a plan.

But while a crisis was averted there, the senators say it is still unacceptable that consumers in many counties have few to no choices when it comes to exchange carriers. In Arizona’s most populous county, for instance, the exit of Phoenix Health Plans has left residents with only one insurance provider for the ACA marketplace, McCain’s announcement notes.

“This legislation would ensure that Arizonans are not forced to pay a penalty due to the failure of a healthcare system that was fatally flawed from conception,” McCain says in the announcement.

With Aetna just the latest in the string of insurers set to lessen their exchange presence in 2017, the Obama administration has responded to the industry’s concerns with a set of policies aimed at lessening the financial burden of operating on the exchanges.

It is unclear, however, if those steps will be able to ease concerns about eroding competition in the marketplaces, as a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis has pointed out that 31 percent of counties next year are set to have just one insurer.