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Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

Two days after President Trump and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway confirmed the administration’s unprecedented practice of making White House staffers sign non-disclosure agreements, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told reporters that he doubts such agreements for federal employees could hold up in court.

“I just don’t know if they’re valid whatsoever,” he said, adding the caveat that he is not an attorney himself. “Other than the disclosure of classified information, which is a crime in and of itself, I don’t know how you hold a public employee, a government employee, accountable to a non-disclosure agreement. I don’t know how that’s enforceable whatsoever.”

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Three low-income Arkansans with pre-existing health conditions sued the Trump administration on Tuesday for giving their state the go-ahead to impose strict monthly work requirements on Medicaid and restrict the number of months for which the program will retroactively cover the health expenses of new enrollees. More plaintiffs may join the case in the months to come.

The lawsuit argues that the administration’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, violates the Constitution’s “take care” clause, and breaks with the original purpose of Medicaid by putting thousands of residents at risk of losing their insurance coverage.

Nationwide and in Arkansas, the vast majority of Medicaid recipients already work, and most non-working recipients are not able to work, either because of an illness or disability or the scarcity of jobs in their area. Yet the promotion of the rules has been a top priority of the Trump administration, despite data showing that similar requirements in other federal benefits programs failed to increase employment.

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Last week, HHS Secretary Alex Azar gave a speech at the conference of the conservative policy and lobbying powerhouse ALEC in which he bashed the Affordable Care Act as a “broken law” with “inherent instability.”

Azar called the individual insurance market “the market where Obamacare has done the most damage,” and said that because of the ACA’s regulations “we ended up with the unaffordable insurance market we have today.”

Azar did not acknowledge, however, that most of that “damage” is the result of the Trump administration’s policies, including the repeal of the individual mandate, the sabotage of the 2017 open enrollment period, and most recently, the introduction of skimpy, short-term, off-market insurance plans designed to draw younger and healthier people out of the regulated market.

But as Azar and other Trump administration officials aggressively push these “short-term” plans — which can be renewed for up to 3 years, can reject people with pre-exisiting conditions, and can refuse to cover basic services and medicines — state governments are pushing back against their sale.

A growing list of states, including California, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington State either already have or are working to implement laws either strictly regulating the short-term insurance plans or banning them altogether, warning that they are a completely inadequate substitute for health insurance and will drive up premiums in the individual market.

Relatedly, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently vetoed bills passed by his GOP legislature that would have expanded the use of short-term plans, and his administration announced that the just-approved expansion of Medicaid in the state is expected to bring down insurance premiums significantly — because tens of thousands of people who were getting individual market subsidies will now be covered by Medicaid.

In a perfect trifecta of the Trump administration’s war on public assistance, hostility towards unions and a predilection for health care meddling, HHS has proposed a rule banning home health aids serving people on Medicaid from automatically paying union dues. Nearly half a million unionized workers help low-income elderly and disabled patients, and the new rule would make it more difficult for them to organize for better pay and working conditions.

And as we draw closer to the midterm elections, in which control of the House and possibly the Senate hangs in the balance, Democrats are recognizing that health care is a major strength for them, and are teeing up personalized health care-related attacks on Republican candidates.

For example, Democrats in Florida are going after Senate hopeful Gov. Rick Scott (R) for his pre-politics career as a hospital executive whose company was fined hundreds of millions for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid, and for his refusal to expand Medicaid while in office.

“If Scott has an Achilles heel, it’s health care,” a Florida Democratic strategist told TPM.

Similar strategies are playing out in other close midterm contests. Attorneys General Josh Hawley and Patrick Morrisey, who are running for Senate in Missouri and West Virginia respectively, are coming under attack for signing onto a lawsuit attempting to gut the ACA.

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Despite predictions of a “blue wave” in this November’s midterm elections, Democrats face a brutal Senate map, and have to fight to hold onto control of 10 seats in states that voted for President Trump. One of the closest and likely one of the most expensive races is going down in Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who has represented the state since 2001, is facing the toughest challenge of his career from Gov. Rick Scott (R), a close Trump ally.

“This is really a clash of the titans,” Republican political strategist Rick Wilson told TPM. “They both have run multiple statewide races and they’re good at it.”

The latest Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters showed a tight race, with Scott slightly in the lead and with 9 percent of voters undecided. Over the past few months, despite Republicans’ poor performance on a generic ballot nationwide, Mason-Dixon found that Scott has climbed in the polls while Nelson has “remained static” — numbers reflected in other public polling.

National Democrats acknowledge the state is going to be a huge money drain for them, but say they’re confident Scott can be defeated.

“Look at Rick Scott’s past electoral performance,” David Bergstein, the national press secretary of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), told TPM. “In Republicans’ two best cycles in modern political history, in 2010 and 2014, Scott dramatically outspent his opponents and never won by more than a point. He barely eked out victories in favorable years, and this is not a favorable year for him.”

Scott has been pouring what Wilson dubs “an assload of money” into his campaign, buying gobs of airtime in the expensive state. The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC has swooped in to help Nelson with a massive TV buy set to begin after Labor Day, a $23 million investment on top of the $2.2 million the PAC already spent earlier this year. That’s nearly a third of its total ad budget for the campaign cycle just for Nelson, a sign of the supreme importance the group is putting on holding this seat.

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Four cities filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing the Trump administration of violating the “Take Care” clause of the Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act by chipping away at the Affordable Care Act in ways that have depressed health insurance enrollment and driven up costs for both individuals and taxpayers.

The complaint from the cities of Columbus, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Chicago charges President Trump with the “premeditated destruction” of parts of the ACA. They are suing to force the administration to restore the funding that was slashed for outreach and enrollment assistance, extend the 2019 open enrollment period, and steer people towards comprehensive ACA plans and away from skimpy short-term plans that do not cover pre-existing conditions.

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As the Trump administration slowly works to reunite most, but not all, of the thousands of migrant parents and children it forcibly separated, there is a growing call from Republicans and administration officials to keep immigrant families locked up for the entirety of their bids for asylum or legal status, which could take months or years.

Detaining children for more than 20 days is currently illegal, but the GOP is considering several approaches to make it happen. On Capitol Hill, Republicans have introduced multiple bills that would repeal the decades-old legal protections for children in immigration facilities and allow for indefinite family detention, and ICE officials asked Congress directly on Tuesday to pass them.

“Give us the authority to hold the family as a family unit during the pendency of their immigration removal proceedings,” ICE Executive Associate Director Matthew Albence said. 

The administration could also attempt to chip away at Flores through the agency rule-making process, and while a federal judge recently rejected the Trump administration’s motion to overturn the Flores settlement, which created those legal protections, officials said Tuesday that they may appeal that ruling.

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On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first and possibly only congressional oversight hearing on the Trump administration immigration policies that led to the forced separation of thousands of parents and children. At the hearing, administration officials revealed that hundreds of children remain separated nearly a week after a court-imposed deadline to reunite them, that pregnant detainees can be shackled as long as they are not in “active labor” and that there was significant internal pushback within agencies as the family separation policy was being developed by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  

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This past week, after plunging insurance markets further into uncertainty by cutting off the risk adjustment payments that insurers who cover a disproportionate number of sick and costly patients are owed under the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration said, “Just kidding!” 

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule clarifying methodology of the program, which redistributes money between different insurance companies and costs taxpayers nothing, and announced the payments would continue. Why they couldn’t have done this all along without threatening to terminate the program is unclear.

HHS also helped shore up the ACA’s markets by approving requests from Wisconsin and Maine to launch reinsurance programs aimed at lowering premiums in the state’s individual insurance market. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is facing a tough reelection race this November, has not yet received an answer from the administration to his other request for a controversial Medicaid waiver that would include strict work requirements and drug tests for the tens of thousands of low-income residents enrolled in the program.

But lest anyone think that the Trump administration suddenly supports the ACA, a new investigation finds that Trump appointees at HHS’ research and policy office have combed through the agency’s archives and “deleted positive references to Obamacare.” The officials have also edited out references to LGBT health issues, released dubious and misleading reports about the impacts of the ACA, and cooked data in a health care study to yield an outcome more flattering to the administration.

HHS also plans to reject a waiver from Utah, and other states should they make the request, to partially expand Medicaid — up to just 100 percent of the federal poverty line instead of the 133 percent required by the ACA. The move, fueled by President Trump’s distaste for anything that appears to support Obamacare, may backfire on Republicans by fomenting support this November for a ballot initiative to fully expand Medicaid in Utah. (The Obama administration refused to allow partial expansions as well in an effort to push states to fully expand.)

The Trump administration is even less keen on what many on the left would like to see succeed the ACA: universal coverage via some form of “Medicare-for-All” system. Last week, CMS Administrator Seema Verma gave a speech bashing the growing number of Democrats campaigning on a Medicare-for-All platform and vowing to reject any waiver that aims to set up a state-level single-payer program.

Republicans are also seizing on a new study published by a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers that estimates the cost of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All program to be just under $33 trillion over 10 years. Sounds like a lot, yes? But it’s actually a few trillion less than the projected cost of keeping the health care system we have now, and tens of millions more people would be insured.

Finally, happy 53rd birthday to both Medicare and Medicaid, though the Trump administration seems to be only celebrating the former.

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The Trump administration has admitted in court that it deported at least 468 immigrant parents without their children, and while those families are entitled under a federal court order to the chance to be reunified, the Trump administration has yet to make any effort to find them.

“We don’t keep track of individuals once they’ve been deported,” Matthew Albence, the head of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, told reporters on a conference call Thursday. Asked what the plan is now for reuniting hundreds of children in U.S. custody with parents already removed from the country, a Health and Human Services official demurred, saying they are awaiting instructions from federal courts.

In this vacuum, a host of advocacy and faith-based groups have mobilized, launching a sprawling, transnational effort to track down hundreds of parents and ask them whether they want to their child returned to them or to leave them behind in the United States to pursue asylum on their own.  

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters at the G20 conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Saturday that the $12 billion bailout President Trump promised to farmers impacted by the trade war his tariffs triggered will not fully compensate for the income producers are set to lose.

“Obviously this is not going to make farmers whole,” Perdue said, adding that the Trump administration is only promising to help the nation’s farmers this year and is not guaranteeing future support. “It’s for the 2018 crop. We do not expect to do this over a period of time.”

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