Senate health panel to hold hearings on stabilizing Obamacare

In this Jan. 31, 2017, file photo, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., accompanied by the committee's ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

President Trump says Senate Republicans will look like “total quitters” if they move on from plans to repeal Obamacare along party lines, but GOP leaders have already nudged health care aside to move on to other parts of their agenda.

A key committee said it will hold bipartisan hearings in September, seeking common ground, but there’s no immediate path forward for any legislation after GOP leaders were unable to get their members on board even a slimmed-down repeal effort last week.

“It’s pretty obvious that our problem on health care was not the Democrats. We didn’t have 50 Republicans,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Kentucky Republican was responding to prodding from Mr. Trump, who recently told Senate Republicans to give repeal another go before moving onto other items.

“Unless the Republican Senators are total quitters, Repeal & Replace is not dead! Demand another vote before voting on any other bill!” Mr. Trump tweeted after a trio of Republicans and every Democrat refused to prolong the repeal effort.

Mr. McConnell left the door open to GOP ideas that sputtered out last week, saying congressional scorekeepers are still scrubbing proposals from conservatives and moderates that could peel off more votes from GOP holdouts and pass with a simple majority.

“There is still an opportunity to do that,” he said.

But he’s dedicated the first two weeks of August to confirming presidential nominations, then lawmakers flee Washington for their summer vacation. When they return in September they’ll be facing a debt limit debate, they’ll need to pass funding bills to keep the government open, and they have a self-imposed fall deadline for tax reform.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said he will try to bring near-term stability to the wobbly exchanges when Congress returns. He scheduled hearings in early September to begin crafting legislation to backstop the markets.

Mr. Alexander said the hearing will accept input from both parties and an array of stakeholders, from state insurance commissioners to patients to governors.

Though Republicans would prefer to repeal and replace Obamacare outright, Mr. Alexander said it’s important to prop up the markets while that effort is in limbo.

He fears that many Americans who qualify for taxpayer-funded subsidies will find zero options on their Obamacare exchanges next year, while those who aren’t subsidized will confront skyrocketing rates, after President Obama’s program failed to attract enough young and healthy enrollees in the early rounds.

“There are a number of issues with the American health care system, but if your house is on fire you want to put out the fire,” Mr. Alexander said. “The fire in this case is the individual health insurance market. Both Republicans and Democrats agree on this.”

Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dean Heller of Nevada are pitching another way forward: block-grant the funding that states would normally receive under Obamacare and asking them to come up with their own plans.

The senators had “productive” meetings with White House officials, but leadership hasn’t latched onto the plan so far.

The most immediate test is for Mr. Trump, who will have to soon decide whether to make the next set of payments for “cost-sharing reductions” that reimburse insurers who pick up low-income customers’ costs on Obamacare’s exchanges.

Without the payments, insurers say they will increase their premiums by an average of 20 percent next year.

Mr. Trump has threatened to withdraw the payments, hoping to force Democrats to the negotiating table on health care.

Democrats say those payments must continue, even though Congress has never approved them. Mr. Obama paid them anyway, and lost a court battle in which a judge ruled the payments illegal.

“You don’t hurt innocent people, Mr. President, when you lose politically,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday. “That is not presidential. That is not, frankly, what an adult does.”


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