WASHINGTON (AP) -- After dozens of attempts to overturn the new health care law, House Republicans on Wednesday took a different tack, promoting legislation that would come to the rescue of a prominent program in the new law at the expense of another vital element of the law.
The House bill, named the "Helping Sick Americans Now Act," would prop up a faltering program that helps people with pre-existing conditions get insurance, doing so by taking money away from the 2010 law's main prevention fund.
The legislation is likely to be ignored by the Democratic-led Senate and was met by a veto threat from the White House, but it does give Republicans a platform to talk about an aspect of the Affordable Care Act, or "ObamaCare," that has not gone as well as hoped.
The Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan was a stopgap measure intended to help people who have trouble getting private insurance because of a medical condition. This would assist people who have uninsured for at least six months to get coverage at average rates. The program is slated to disappear in 2014 when the consumer protections under the Affordable Care Act take full effect.
The original goal was to reach more than 300,000, but the program's costs were higher than anticipated and in February the administration said it would stop taking new applications. It has enrolled more than 100,000 people.
The GOP bill would extend the program through the end of the year by providing up to $3.6 billion and would eliminate the requirements that applicants be uninsured for six months. The money would come from the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which Republicans refer to as a "slush fund" for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius but which the administration says is vital to promoting disease prevention programs and publicizing the new health insurance markets that will open this fall.
"We want to stop ObamaCare and that's why we're going to the fund, the slush fund, that Secretary Sebelius is using for the implementation of the bill," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said.
The White House, in its veto threat statement, says the legislation would effectively eliminate funding for three years for a program that "supports critical investments such as tobacco use reduction and programs to reduce health-care-associated infections and the national burden of chronic disease."
Republicans, said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., are raiding the law's preventive health care fund "even though preventive care reduces costs while keeping Americans healthier."
Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a group that has criticized the Obama administration for using prevention fund dollars to publicize the benefits of the new law, said the prevention account is not being misused as a slush fund as Republicans allege.
"The bulk of the funding in the prevention fund has indeed gone to the original intent of public health and prevention," he said. He said his organization, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting public health strategies to prevent disease, is opposed to the GOP bill, calling it a "foolish trade-off."
Democrats also point out that the Republican bill takes about $800 million more out of the prevention fund than is needed to keep the high-risk insurance plan going. Republicans say that money would go to reducing the deficit. Democrats have suggested sustaining the program through the end of the year through such means as raising tobacco taxes or rolling back oil and gas company tax breaks.
"My bill takes money from a wasteful, duplicative fund, moves it into a program that has bipartisan support and helps pay down the debt," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said after the measure cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week.
But the bill also has its detractors on the right. The conservative Club for Growth on Tuesday urged House lawmakers to vote against the bill and said their votes would be a part of the organization's scorecard that determines conservative credentials. "The proposal would further extend the federal government's role in healthcare," it said, and by eliminating the six-month-wait requirement it "creates the moral hazard of avoiding insurance until it is needed."
AP reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.