For months, officials in Republican-controlled Iowa had sought federal permission to revitalize their ailing health-insurance marketplace. Then President Trump read about the request in a newspaper story and called the federal director weighing the application.
Trump's message in late August was clear, according to individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations: Tell Iowa no.
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act see the president's opposition even to changes sought by conservative states as part of a broader campaign by his administration to undermine the 2010 health-care law. In addition to trying to cut funding for the ACA, the Trump administration also is hampering state efforts to control premiums. In the case of Iowa, that involved a highly unusual intervention by the president himself.
And with the fifth enrollment season set to begin Nov. 1, advocates say the Health and Human Services Department has done more to suppress the number of people signing up than to boost it. HHS has slashed grants to groups that help consumers get insurance coverage, for example. It also has cut the enrollment period in half, reduced the advertising budget by 90 percent and announced an outage schedule that would make the HealthCare.gov website less available than last year.
The White House also has yet to commit to funding the cost-sharing reductions that help about 7 million lower-income Americans afford out-of-pocket expenses on their ACA health plans. Trump has regularly threatened to block them and, according to an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly, officials are considering action to end the payments in November.
The uncertainty has driven premium prices much higher for 2018. A possible move by the Treasury Department to ease the requirement that most Americans obtain coverage could further erode a core element of the law.
On Friday, Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan (D-N.H.) called on the administration to abandon its "attempts to sabotage health care markets and raise health care costs for millions." Such efforts, warn health advocates as well as state and local officials, will translate into more uninsured Americans.
"In Ohio, the Trump administration has already inflicted the damage," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. After its nearly $1.7 million enrollment-assistance grant was cut 72 percent last month, the group decided it no longer could effectively participate. "We are past the point of no return on this," Hamler-Fugitt said.
HHS has told its regional administrators not to even meet with on-the-ground organizations about enrollment. The late decision, which department spokesman Matt Lloyd said was made because such groups organize and implement events "with their own agenda," left leaders of grass-roots organizations feeling stranded.
"I don't think it's too much to ask the agency tasked with outreach and enrollment to be involved with that," said Roy Mitchell, executive director for the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, which receives no federal funding for its ACA efforts. "There's money for HHS to fly around on private jets, but there's not money and resources to do outreach in Mississippi."
Administration officials make no apologies for actions scaling back federal support for the ACA, also known as Obamacare. Trump, Vice President Pence and those carrying out the law at different agencies take most every opportunity to claim that it is failing. HHS Secretary Tom Price's abrupt resignation Friday, prompted by the furor over his use of expensive chartered planes for work trips, is not expected to shift this overall approach.
"Obamacare has never lived up to enrollment expectations despite the previous administration's best efforts," Lloyd said in an email last week. "The American people know a bad deal when they see one, and many won't be convinced to sign up for 'Washington-knows-best' health coverage that they can't afford."
Trump and his aides also are looking for ways to loosen the existing law's requirements, now that the latest congressional attempt to repeal it outright has failed. The Treasury Department may broaden the ACA's "hardship exemption" so that taxpayers don't face costly penalties for failing to obtain coverage, a Republican briefed on the plan said. That is sure to depress enrollment among the younger, healthier consumers whom insurers count on to help buffer the health-care costs of sicker customers.
"We should fully expect the Trump administration to take a more activist route to deal with Obamacare, given the inability of Congress to move through with a repeal-and-replace bill," said Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
While the law's open enrollment period has attracted the most public attention, a more obscure battle within the administration over several states' proposed changes for their marketplaces speaks volumes about the president's approach to the law.
It was a Wall Street Journal article about Iowa's request that provoked Trump's ire, according to an individual briefed on the exchange. The story detailed how officials had just submitted the application for a Section 1332 waiver — a provision that allows states to adjust how they are implementing the ACA as long as they can prove it would not translate into lost or less-affordable coverage.
Iowa's aim was to foster more competition and better prices. The story said other states hoping to stabilize their situations were watching closely.
Trump first tried to reach Price, the individual recounted, but the secretary was traveling in Asia and unavailable. The president then called Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency charged with authorizing or rejecting Section 1332 applications. CMS had been working closely with Iowa as it fine-tuned its submission.
State Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen has repeatedly described the "Iowa Stopgap Measure" as critical to expanding marketplace options there. The plan would abolish the ACA exchange there and convert consumer subsidies into a type of GOP-styled tax credit. New financial buffers would help insurers handle customers with particularly high medical expenses.
Without the measure, "over 20,000 middle class farmers, early retirees and self-employed Iowans will likely either go uninsured or leave Iowa," Ommen warned in a Sept. 19 statement. Those who sign up for 2018 exchange coverage face premium rate increases of 57 percent on average from the single insurer participating.
Some administration officials are still pressing for the waiver to be granted, according to interviews with several Republicans. The HHS spokesman confirmed last week that Iowa's application "has been deemed complete and is currently under review" but did not address the president's directive on the matter.
Eliot Fishman oversaw such waivers at CMS during the previous administration and said in an interview that President Barack Obama weighed in on those decisions only in "unusual" cases" toward the end of the process.
"Things that are tough calls typically go to the president, but they go with a [staff] recommendation that often carries a great deal of weight," said Fishman, now senior director of health policy for the liberal health-care advocacy group Families USA.
Iowa is not the only red state to chafe at the administration's unwillingness to allow more flexibility.
On Friday, Oklahoma sent a letter to Price and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying it was withdrawing its federal waiver request because administration officials had not provided an answer "after months of development, negotiation, and near daily communication over the past six weeks."
"While we appreciate the work of your staff, the lack of timely waiver approval will prevent thousands of Oklahomans from realizing the benefits of significantly lower insurance premiums in 2018," wrote Terry Cline, the state's health secretary.
In at least one case, CMS has approved a waiver in a way that upended a state's plan to maximize health coverage for its residents. Minnesota applied to CMS for permission to establish a reinsurance program, which can lower premiums by giving insurers a guarantee that they will have limited financial exposure for customers with particularly high medical expenses. The agency informed Gov. Mark Dayton (D) on Sept. 22 that it would provide $323 million for the program since the lower premiums would mean savings to the federal government on subsidies to Minnesotans with ACA health plans.
But, Verma added, the federal government also would cut $369 million in funding for a separate program aimed at residents who earn between 138 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level and don't qualify for the same subsidies.
Minnesota's entire congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, issued a joint statement saying they were "disappointed that our state is facing a last-minute penalty" and "exploring possible paths forward."
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Trump should devote time to forging a bipartisan agreement to stabilize the ACA marketplaces.
"If he is only interested in sabotaging the market, that is a dangerous road for him to ride, because he will own it," she said.
Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.