Short-Term Health Care Deal Could Be Imminent

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, accompanied by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., right, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, after he and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., say they have the "basic outlines" of a bipartisan deal to resume payments to health insurers that President Donald Trump has blocked. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, accompanied by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., right, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, after he and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., say they have the "basic outlines" of a bipartisan deal to resume payments to health insurers that President Donald Trump has blocked. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican and Democratic senators joined in announcing a plan Tuesday aimed at stabilizing America’s health insurance markets in the wake of President Donald Trump’s order to terminate “Obamacare” subsidies. Trump himself spoke approvingly of the deal, but some conservatives denounced it as an insurance company bailout, making its future uncertain.

The agreement followed weeks of negotiations between Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington that sought to address health insurance markets that have been in limbo following GOP failures to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The talks took on added urgency when Trump announced last week that he would end monthly “cost sharing reduction” payments the government makes to help insurance companies reduce costs for lower-income people.

Without that money, premiums for some people buying individual health plans would spike, and some insurers would flee the markets, industry officials warn.

The Alexander-Murray deal would continue the insurer payments for two years, while establishing new flexibility for states under former President Barack Obama’s law.

“This would allow the Senate to continue its debate about the long term of health care, but over the next two years I think Americans won’t have to worry about the possibility of being able to buy insurance in counties where they live,” Alexander said in announcing the deal after a closed-door lunch where he presented it to GOP senators.

“This agreement avoids chaos. I don’t know a Republican or Democrat who benefits from chaos,” he said.

Alexander said the president had encouraged his efforts in phone calls over the past two weeks. And at the White House, Trump responded positively, expressing optimism that Republicans would ultimately succeed in repealing Obamacare, but until then, “For one year, two years, we’re going to have a very good solution.”

Trump’s position may seem contradictory in that he himself ordered an end to the payments, calling them a bailout, but is now encouraging legislation to reinstitute them. Indeed White House officials had said they would want more in exchange than the additional state flexibility offered in the Alexander-Murray agreement.

Just minutes before Alexander announced the deal, White House legislative director Marc Short emerged from the Senate GOP lunch saying that “a starting point” in exchange for restoring the cost-sharing payments “is eliminating the individual mandate and employer mandate” — the central pillars of Obamacare.

That suggested some disagreement within the administration on the issue. If so, it does not bode well for ultimate passage of Alexander-Murray, since the president’s full support will be crucial in persuading Republicans to get on board.

Initially as president, Trump continued making the payments though resisting, but he declared last week he would pull the plug. The payments, which cost around $7 billion this year, lower expenses like co-payments and deductibles for more than 6 million people. But discontinuing them would actually cost the government more money under Obamacare’s complicated structure, because some people facing higher premiums would end up getting bigger tax subsidies to help pay for them.

The Alexander-Murray deal does include a host of provisions allowing states faster and easier access to waivers that would allow them to shape their own marketplace plans under Obamacare. It also would provide for a new low-cost catastrophic coverage insurance option for all consumers.

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