Contrary to letter indicating softer stance, Martinez wants ‘Obamacare’ repealed, aide says

December 23, 2016

Gov. Susana Martinez never wrote a letter recently posted by the online news site Politico urging Congress to use caution in replacing aspects of the Affordable Care Act — in fact, she wants the law repealed, her press aide said Thursday.

“The governor opposes Obamacare and believes it needs to be replaced with a system that doesn’t hurt small businesses and doesn’t raise premiums on our families,” said Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for Martinez.

It was the most definitive statement and strongest opposition to the law that Martinez has offered. She initially backed the federal health care law because she said it was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and had standing as the law of the land.

The letter was drafted by officials with the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange and claimed Martinez favored a cautious approach on repealing federally mandated health insurance. The exchange, known as beWellnm.com, is an independent agency that helps residents get insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Linda Wedeen, interim chief executive of the exchange, said her staff was trying to pull together ideas so the state could respond to Republicans in Congress. The letter had circulated among her staff but was still in draft form.

“It was not meant to be seen by anybody other than people working on it. Unfortunately, it got out and the exchange regrets it was misconstrued by anyone that it was official,” she said.

Sanchez said the governor never saw the letter before Politico posted it.

Martinez was one of the first three Republican governors to embrace parts of the law, but she now believes it has gone too far, Sanchez said.

Sanchez said he asked Politico for a copy of the letter after he was asked for a comment by The New Mexican. What he received from the media organization had no letterhead or signatures.

The letter was addressed to U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican floor leader from California. It contained signature lines for Martinez and New Mexico Insurance Superintendent John Franchini but not their signatures.

The draft letter said repealing “Obamacare” without a viable replacement plan “could cause considerable harm” to residents of New Mexico.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance said Franchini, like Martinez, had never seen the letter. Franchini is preparing a formal response about the Affordable Care Act and its impact in New Mexico, but that won’t be sent to Congress until mid-January, said Heather Widler, a spokeswoman for the office.

At a meeting of the Republican Governors Association last month in Florida, Martinez was one of the chief executives to support the idea of proceeding deliberately on changing Obamacare.

According The Associated Press, she said a transition to any new system would be needed to make certain people were not left uninsured.

“I don’t know that there will ever be a turn off the switch, wait a period of time and then turn it back on,” Martinez said at the meeting. “There is going to have to be a transition and not leave everyone uninsured.”

President-elect Donald Trump and House Republicans have promised to repeal or replace President Barack Obama’s signature health legislation. In anticipation of that, McCarthy has asked governors and state insurance officials to offer their observations on the law.

The law has many parts, and Trump has expressed support for its prohibition on insurance companies denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or limiting lifetime payouts for ongoing care. He also wants to retain part of the law that allows 1.4 million parents to keep adult children on their insurance until age 26.

Other aspects of the law are not as popular with Republicans, including the mandate that most Americans have health insurance or pay a fine. Insurance executives say the mandate is necessary to allow them to care for those with pre-existing conditions or expensive lifelong treatments.

As part of that mandate, the law also requires businesses with 50 or more employees to offer group health insurance, and asks that states offer their own insurance website or use the federal healthcare.gov site so consumers can shop for and compare health plans.

There also are federal subsidies to help low- and middle-income consumers pay monthly premiums. Nationwide, 8.9 million people receive some premium assistance.

But the most expensive aspect of the insurance law involved the expansion of the government’s Medicaid program. Once available only to the poor and disabled, Medicaid was expanded to healthy adults just above the poverty line. The federal government has promised to pay 90 percent of these costs, if states pick up the tab for 10 percent.

A total of 32 states have gone forward with Medicaid expansion for 12.3 million people. Martinez was among the first Republican governors to adopt the expansion, which covers 235,000 New Mexicans.

Overall, the law has reduced the percentage of New Mexicans without health insurance to 10 percent, down from 20 percent five years ago.

The expansion also has been an economic engine in New Mexico, a state that otherwise has had a sluggish economy. One in 5 new jobs are tied to the health care sector.

But it has not been cheap and has led to spending cuts elsewhere as state government tries to pay for Medicaid spending that will top $1 billion in state funds this year.

In 2012, Martinez broke with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by saying parts of the law — such as keeping children on their parents’ insurance — should be retained. “There are parts of it that we can keep, to make sure that we’re taking care of that very needy population,” she said during a radio interview.

When she decided to expand Medicaid in 2013, Martinez said the decision was part of “an obligation to provide an adequate level of basic health care services for New Mexicans that are most in need.”

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com.