Trump signs U.S. healthcare executive orders that may have little impact

By Alexandra Alper, Michael Erman and Steve Holland | Thu, September 24, 2020 09:25 EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday signed two executive orders on healthcare for Americans that lawyers said will carry little weight, as the president seeks to boost his flagging credibility with voters on the hot-button issue ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump signed the twin orders implementing his "America First Healthcare Plan" in an airport hangar in Charlotte, North Carolina, amid an audience that included medical professionals.

"Under my plan 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs," Trump said in describing part of his program.

The Trump administration also set out new rules allowing U.S. states and territories to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada.

Trump said he expected an even deeper reduction in drug prices from an earlier executive order capping Medicare drug prices at the lowest level paid by other rich nations. Drug companies and experts have questioned whether that executive order is practical and can withstand expected legal challenges.

One of Thursday's executive orders is aimed at ensuring Americans with pre-existing conditions retain healthcare coverage, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters, even as his own administration seeks to end the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which protects the same right.

Azar also said Trump was directing him via the second executive order to work with Congress to pass legislation banning surprise healthcare bills by the beginning of next year, and explore executive action if the legislative bid fails.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, labeled the effort "bogus," as she called on the president to "drop his lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic."

While Trump heralded his actions, some lawyers expressed skepticism that he had the authority to make the move by executive order.

Nicholas Bagley, a professor at University of Michigan's law school, said: "Unless there's a law that prohibits the conduct in question, or unless the president is exercising a power that's been delegated to him by Congress, his statements have no more legal weight than a tweet."

"It's as if I was walking around with a memo that was titled 'Executive Order,' and claimed that the policy of the United States is that everybody gets a cheeseburger on Tuesdays," he added.

Trump lags Democratic rival and former Vice President Joe Biden in national opinion polls, especially on the question of who would better handle healthcare.

The president's action, unveiled less than six weeks before Election Day on Nov. 3, also comes amid long-standing criticisms that he has failed to follow through on promises to propose an alternative to Obamacare even as he works to dismantle that program.

Trump also has drawn fire for his administration's response to the deadly coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.

In June, the Trump administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the Obamacare law that added millions to the healthcare safety net.

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, prohibited health insurers from denying coverage to Americans with known health conditions.

Surprise bills occur when patients visit a hospital they believe is in their health insurance network but then are seen by a doctor or specialist who is out of network. Trump previously called on Congress to address the issue in 2019.

"What the president is saying is that all the relevant players - hospitals, doctors, insurance companies - had better get their act together, and get legislation passed through Congress that protects patients against surprise medical bills," Azar said.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington, Michael Erman in New York and Steve Holland in Charlotte; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)

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