Dems Praise Bipartisan Health Care Hearing — Then Bash Trump
GOP committee leader kicks off proceedings on potential bailout for Obamacare with little talk of repeal
Democratic senators Wednesday praised a bipartisan approach by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to address the flaws of Obamacare — and then undermined that sentiment by lining up to bash President Donald Trump.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to undo the damage that this administration has caused within the health care system, because this administration is still trying to create Trumpcare by sabotage,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Murray insisted that the Affordable Care Act is stronger than Trump’s tweets suggest.
"But it is weaker as a direct result of some steps that have been taken," she said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) echoed that assertion.
"While this committee is working together to achieve this goal, the administration continues to play dangerous political games that are destabilizing the market and causing premiums to rise," she said.
Said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): "But at the same time that we're having this conversation, President Trump is actively working to sabotage our health care system."
Warren and others complained that Trump was causing "uncertainty" by suggesting that he might pull the plug on cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments, which a federal judge last year declared illegal, and by reducing advertising and outreach efforts to encourage customers to enroll in health insurance plans through government-run online insurance exchanges.
"It's petty and it's going to hurt millions of people," Warren said.
Alexander Seeks 'One Small Step'
Sen. Alexander, chairman of the committee, scheduled hearings for this week and next with the decidedly modest goal of building consensus for small changes to "stabilize" the individual insurance market. He said he hopes the Senate can agree by the end of this month to formally pass the CSR payments to insurance companies that Congress never authorized.
The payments help offset deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses to "silver" plan customers earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Critics deride the proposal as an insurance company bailout. Some experts believe premiums could increase by another 20 percent should the subsidy go away.
In exchange for making the payments permanent, Alexander hopes Democrats will agree to provide more flexibility for states to obtain waivers already available under the Affordable Care Act to free themselves from federal regulations.
"This hearing is about taking one small step, a small step on a big issue which has been locked in partisan stalemate for seven years — health insurance," he said. "It is a step Congress needs to take by the end of this month."
It falls far short of the repeal that conservatives long have demanded and Republican lawmakers repeatedly have promised.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the 18 million Americans who buy health insurance in the individual market are at the mercy of the worst-functioning sector of the health system.
"You shouldn't want to be there," he said. "And my question is a more fundamental question: Can you fix it, and is it morally or ethically right to take money from the taxpayer and give it to insurance companies to subsidize people in the individual market? Maybe we ought to give people an exit. Let's let people get the hell out of the individual market."
Paul touted an idea he has been promoting for months to allow people to form nationwide insurance groups that could negotiate better prices for their members and withstand the shock of a handful of very sick people. He offered the example of a fast-food worker who does not get insurance from his employer.
On his own, that worker is stuck with high premiums, even if subsidized by the government. Combined with millions of other fast-food workers, Paul said, that worker can buy cheaper insurance. That, he added, is far better than burdening taxpayers.
Conservatives Rip Alexander Approach
A number of conservative activists talking to reporters on a conference call criticized Alexander's approach as a poor substitute for repealing Obamacare.
"The subsidization of the insurance companies — it just shouldn't happen," said Chip Roy, director of the Texas Policy Foundation's Center for the Tenth Amendment Action. "This is what the House fought and went to court over, and now they're trying to go down the road. And providing massive insurance subsidies for insurance companies right now is completely unacceptable."
Several activists said Republicans should keep trying to build a majority for repeal, and replace the congressional Republican leadership, if necessary.
"They need to keep their promise, and their promise wasn't to subsidize health insurers in exchange for some state flexibility," said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. "Their promise was to repeal Obamacare and return market-based health care to our nation. And they're not keeping that promise, and the Alexander proposal should be dead on arrival."
But Galen Institute President Grace-Marie Turner, who has promoted repeal for years, told LifeZette before the hearings began that getting Democrats to accept greater flexibility for states would be a step in the right direction.
"It could be pretty consequential," said Turner.
Wednesday's hearing featured testimony from five state insurance officials, whose opinions on Obamacare varied greatly.
Teresa Miller, the former Pennsylvania insurance commissioner and acting secretary of human services, acknowledged that Obamacare is not perfect.
"But the narrative that the ACA is failing and imploding is just false, and ignores the coverage requirements that the law put in place," she said.
Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Julie McPeak said the individual insurance market is facing great pressure. She said cutting off the CSR payments would be damaging. "To be clear, this issue is not an insurer bailout."
But Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak said the number of insurers selling policies in his state has dropped from five to one, while premiums have risen 130 percent in four years. He said one study estimated that 30,000 Oklahomans who receive no government assistance have dropped insurance because it is unaffordable.
"The implementation of Obamacare in Oklahoma has been a failure," he said. "It has created severe market disruptions without meaningful reductions in the number of uninsureds in our state."
The committee on Thursday will hear from governors.