TAMPA — As Republicans talk of dismantling the Affordable Care Act at the earliest opportunity, outgoing U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell came to town Tuesday to say the law is far from dead, at least for 2017.
"People have said they do not want to disrupt coverage," said Burwell, who encouraged consumers who want coverage starting Jan. 1 to sign up by Thursday's deadline.
Those who do, she said, would have a contract and their insurance for next year would be "in a place where it is safe," she said.
Her visit came amid uncertainty over the controversial federal health law.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress would begin the process of repealing the ACA as early as Jan. 3.
President-elect Donald Trump has said he supports a repeal, but has hinted that he would like to keep certain provisions, including language that ensures people with pre-existing conditions can get coverage. Trump also likes the provision that lets young adults stay on a parent's plan until they are 26.
Still, the Obama administration has not slowed efforts to promote the health law and its positive impact.
A report released Tuesday said nearly 1.6 million Floridians had gained health insurance coverage since the law was enacted in 2010, translating to a 38 percent drop in the uninsured rate.
People with marketplace coverage weren't the only ones to benefit, the report added. The ACA also strengthened Medicare's finances and put new requirements on employer-sponsored coverage.
As a result, about 132,000 young adults in Florida were able to stay on their parents' health insurance plan. More than 355,000 seniors saved a combined $351 million on prescription drugs. And because the ACA requires all health plans to cover preventive services, an additional 7 million Floridians were able to get flu shots, cancer screenings, contraception and mammograms at no extra cost.
Burwell, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, visited an auto sales and financing company on Lois Avenue to make the point that health care navigators were available to help small businesses and individuals with their questions. The stop was the first leg of a two-day, four-city tour to publicize the enrollment deadline.
Castor spoke of U.S. Rep. Tom Price, her colleague in the House, who has been nominated as Burwell's successor and is a staunch critic of the ACA, also known as Obamacare.
"I look forward to working with him," Castor said, "but if he is going to rip the rug out from under families by privatizing Medicare or taking it to seniors in nursing homes or these small-business owners who finally have peace of mind and economic stability that health insurance provides, then he is going to have a battle on his hands."
Meanwhile, in Washington, Gov. Rick Scott visited Price, R-Ga., on Tuesday to discuss what the nation's health care system might look like after Obamacare.
"I know a lot of people in Washington say, 'Oh, you can't replace it. It has to be tweaked,' " Scott told reporters afterward. "The truth is, you have to replace it if you want people to get access to good quality health care at a price they can afford, your employers can afford, the government can afford."
Advocates said the uncertainty shouldn't deter Tampa Bay area consumers from signing up.
"As of now, nothing has changed," said Melanie Hall, executive director of the Family Healthcare Foundation. "Affordable Care Act coverage is still available for consumers, and there are many options to choose from."
Earlier this year, opponents railed against 22 percent rate hikes expected for 2017. But supporters were quick to point out that 93 percent of consumers receive subsidies to help offset the cost of coverage — and that the subsidies were also expected to rise. A federal Health Department study found 84 percent of consumers in Florida would be able to purchase a plan with monthly premiums of $100 or less.
Hall said it was "more important than ever" for consumers to know about the free, unbiased enrollment assistance available throughout the Tampa Bay area. Anyone seeking help can connect with a navigator by calling (813) 995-1066 or visiting coveringflorida.org.
Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.