The Trump administration on Friday partly retracted a directive it had issued less than 24 hours earlier to halt all advertising and other outreach activities aimed at encouraging consumers to buy health plans for 2017 during the final days of enrollment under the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces.
According to two sources familiar with the reversal, administration officials were startled by a backlash that built swiftly on social media among proponents of the health-care law, which President Trump is seeking to dismantle.
The officials conferred overnight, the sources said, and by Friday morning had modified the directive. The new version allows the Department of Health and Human Services to continue to contact people eligible for ACA coverage by email, text and automated phone calls and revives use of a HealthCare.gov Twitter account that had been stilled the day before.
And while the first action would have pulled several million of dollars worth of paid television and digital advertising — regardless of whether the money could be recovered — HHS now says ads will be aired if the government would otherwise lose the money.
A department spokesman on Friday characterized both moves as part of the new administration’s opposition to the ACA and its determination to save money. “We aren’t going to continue spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars promoting a failed government program,” he said in a statement. “Once an assessment was made, we pulled back the most expensive and least efficient part of this massive ad campaign.”
An HHS official said that represents $4 million to $5 million in TV and radio ads that were to air before Tuesday’s sign-up deadline for ACA health insurance this year.
According to one source, however, officials on Friday were scrambling to determine how much money could be recouped.
In the statement, the HHS spokesman said the call center will remain available for people with questions about enrolling through HealthCare.gov, the website for the federal insurance exchange on which 39 state rely. The website continues to operate.
Word of the initial cutoff of all outreach activities triggered a sharp outcry from several former HHS leaders from the Obama administration, as well as other ACA supporters. They called the directive a cynical ploy by the new White House to undercut the final days of enrollment and to suppress the participation of younger and healthier customers, who tend to sign up at the last minute.
On Friday night, they said that the partial reversal was inadequate. “They must reinstate all outreach,” Leslie Dach, director of a fledgling pro-ACA campaign called Protect Our Care, said in a statement. “The health of millions of Americans is at stake.”