WASHINGTON — Insurance companies find themselves back in a familiar position on Capitol Hill these days: the villain.
Amid the problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act, insurers, which perhaps have the most to gain (or lose) from Obamacare, have few friends on either side of the aisle.
This isn't new exactly. Democrats have never liked the insurance industry, and trashed it as greedy and harmful throughout the lead up to the Affordable Care Act's passage. Republicans, traditionally an industry ally, have grown increasingly wary of insurers, which they regard as a key player in the administration's effort to get Obamacare passed in the first place.
The last few years have created strange bedfellows, however. Democrats in some ways are forced to count on insurers to help make the Affordable Care Act work. But bad blood is back on Capitol Hill.
"There is a sense among Democrats that well, you financed a whole bunch of ads against us in 2010 and what we're guilty of is helping to create 30 million new customers for you. So shoot me," said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly.
Connolly was referring to an $86 million effort on the part of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the trade group for the industry, which gave the money to the Chamber of Commerce to actively lobby against health care reform.
"They demanded an individual mandate or they weren't even going to talk," he said. "So guess what? It has an individual mandate and they funded ads through the Chamber of Commerce that accused the administration and the Democrats who voted for it of socialism. Now that's a bit much."
One source of revived animosity: The Obama administration's recent decision to present an administrative "fix" to millions of canceled insurance policies. The fix left insurers irate — they accused the president of turning the industry into "political flak jackets" for the administration's troubles.
But Republican sympathies for insurers' complaints are hard to find.
"Be careful what you ask for," shrugged Republican Rep. John Shimkus.
In general, Republicans still have more goodwill for the industry than do Democrats. Despite their newfound mistrust, Republicans need a healthy private insurance market if they ever want to repeal the law. The GOP is also the beneficiary of more of their campaign dollars. AHIP gave $273,000 to Republicans and over $158,000 to Democrats in 2012.
Even some of the industry's supporters have introduced legislation that insurers oppose, however. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio recently introduced a bill to repeal Obamacare's "risk corridors" — money that would be spent to boost insurers if they lose money in the exchanges. Rubio argued his legislation had more to do with undoing Obamacare than hurting insurance companies.
"I'm not anti-insurance company. Insurance companies are important and a vibrant private insurance industry is important for the future of health insurance in America," Rubio said. "I don't think taxpayers should be bailing them out. It takes a taxpayer bailout to save Obamacare, that alone tells you it's not worth saving."
A House Republican, who did not want to give his name because of potential industry contributions to his campaign, said that insurance companies weren't helping themselves with the GOP when "it appears they are trying to help the Obama administration with implementation of the law."
Despite Republican protests, it's hard to find any glowing statements from AHIP about the health care law. In fact, in March 2010 — when the bill passed — the statement from the trade organization was harsh.
"This legislation will drive up health care costs by adding billions in new health care taxes and encouraging people to wait until they are sick before getting insurance," said AHIP President Karen Ignagni.
Industry officials dispute the idea that they have to choose between wanting health care reform to work and disagreeing with the way it was done.
"So many people in this town think you need to pick sides. We can work with the administration and try to get this up and running and get people enrolled because we're a business and we have an interest to do that," said one industry source. "We can also raise concerns and defend our industry…those are not mutually exclusive things. We want a marketplace that works so we can get people enrolled because we have a business to run."
Some of the law's staunchest opponents, however, see the health care launch issues as solely Obama's problem. And they reason that Democrats' continuing spat with insurers was nothing more than a way to pass on that blame.
"I think the president put them in a bad spot. I think quite most people understand that his cancelation announcement was nothing more than a political announcement," said conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp. "I think they'll ignore him and he'll blame them that they didn't reduce premiums as he demanded they do."
Democrats' reluctance to attack insurers in the recent past has been a point of consternation for some.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said earlier this month it would be in Democrats' best interests to start to hammer insurance companies for the cancellations.
"I don't understand why we aren't far more aggressive," she said.
It hasn't been all bad news for the industry: There have been several efforts on the Hill to get rid of some parts of the law insurers hate most. For example, a bipartisan bill to repeal the law's health insurance tax reached 218 co-sponsors, enough to ensure passage in the House.
But with deadlines fast approaching to get Healthcare.gov up and running — the heightened tensions between Congress and industry seem unlikely to ease soon.
"Most reasonable people on the Hill understand the situation that we are in. We have concerns; we've had issues all along. All the issues that we raised are now coming to light," the industry source said.
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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