Revised healthcare plan to be unveiled this week in Senate

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republican leaders plan to unveil a revised version of their healthcare bill later this week after making little progress on winning over party holdouts.

GOP leaders will hold a vote on the measure next week, John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Monday. They haven’t said publicly how they’re planning to change the proposed legislation to win more support.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been negotiating with his Republican colleagues over revisions to a bill he proposed last month that combines tax cuts with deep reductions in health spending. Changes under consideration include ditching a repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases on the wealthy, revising Medicaid cuts and adding more spending to stabilize premium costs in the individual insurance market, according to a GOP aide who requested anonymity.

McConnell has little time to make a deal. Republican leaders have said they need to move on to other issues, including a tax-code overhaul and next year’s spending bills, if they can’t agree on a health bill before a month-long August break. For the bill to pass, and Republicans to live up to their promise to eliminate President Barack Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment, they can lose no more than two GOP votes from their 52-48 majority amid unanimous Democratic opposition.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, center, walks towards his office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Senate Republican leaders will unveil a closely held plan to replace Obamacare on Thursday that includes a longer transition period than a House passed bill, though there's no indication they have enough support for it to pass in a vote that could come as early as next week. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republicans say they’re increasingly pessimistic the GOP legislation can win approval.

Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said on “Fox News Sunday” that McConnell’s original plan is dead and that what happens with the rewritten version remains to be seen. He put the odds of passing a bill in July at “50-50.”

Given the lack of support for McConnell’s legislation, Senator John McCain of Arizona said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Republicans should write a new bill and let Democrats offer amendments. “That’s what democracy is supposed to be all about,” he said.

McConnell himself took a risk on Thursday by calling for a bipartisan healthcare plan if the Republican-only bill fails. He told an audience in his home state of Kentucky that the Affordable Care Act needs to be altered, as insurers are pulling out of some areas. McConnell’s message could serve as a warning to holdout conservative Republicans most ideologically opposed to Obamacare, but the remarks also may give wavering moderates cover to oppose the GOP plan.

President Donald Trump weighed in Monday, urging GOP lawmakers to replace Obamacare before leaving for their August recess.

“I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!” Trump tweeted.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who opposes McConnell’s bill, said in an interview Monday that she was heartened at the majority leader’s suggestion that Republicans may have to work with Democrats if the GOP bill falls apart.

"I believe we should not repeat the mistake that President Obama made in passing major legislation with no support from the other party," Collins said. She said Medicaid cuts in the GOP bill may force rural hospitals to close. “It’s a devastating blow. So not only will people not have a hospital to go to, you’re going to have unemployment skyrocket" in that area, she said.

Democrats seeking to stabilize Obamacare’s insurance exchanges also re-entered the fray. Democratic leaders sent a letter to McConnell Monday outlining bills aimed at helping consumers who face high premiums on the individual insurance market. The proposals include added cost-sharing subsidies to help cover expenses for some lower-income purchasers, and aid for those who just miss the cutoff to receive subsidies.

‘Immediate Effect’

“Such reforms would have an immediate effect on stabilizing the market while lowering premiums,” wrote the Democrats, led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

McConnell is awaiting estimates from the Congressional Budget Office on possible changes to his bill to determine whether they would increase spending or alter estimates of the number of people who would lose their health coverage. The CBO said the initial proposal from McConnell would cause 22 million fewer Americans to have health insurance in a decade.

"Discussions about the legislation continue within the conference and with CBO,” said David Popp, McConnell’s spokesman.

Republican leaders are considering axing plans to repeal nearly all of the tax increases that help finance the Affordable Care Act, said the GOP aide. The GOP health bill may retain a 3.8 percent investment tax on high-income earners and a Medicare earned-income surcharge on the wealthy.

Medicaid Changes

Those two tax increases generate nearly $231 billion in revenue over a decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Leaving them in place could create a way to cover the costs of expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor or other programs demanded by holdout moderate Republicans.

There likely will be changes to the Medicaid provisions in McConnell’s earlier proposal based on feedback from senators, the aide said. These changes are proving to be among the most difficult to negotiate as GOP senators have vastly different requests based on their states’ needs, the aide said.

The aide said a revised bill probably will boost proposed spending to stabilize premium costs in Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, where those without employer- or government-provided coverage can buy individual policies. McConnell’s earlier legislation includes $50 billion over four years to bolster insurance markets, in addition to added cost-sharing subsidies. It also includes a state innovation pool of $62 billion over eight years that would allow jurisdictions funding for high-risk pools, reinsurance and other items.

McConnell’s early attempts to win over opponents haven’t worked. GOP leaders agreed more than a week ago to add $45 billion in spending to address the opioid epidemic, a key demand of moderates like Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

After a tour of a suburban Cincinnati drug recovery center last week, Portman told an Associated Press reporter that the addition of those funds is but a first step. "I’m still concerned about the way in which Medicaid is dealt with in the proposal," Portman said.

Cruz’s Proposal

Republican leaders are considering a provision proposed by Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, that a group of conservative GOP senators say could help gain their support. Cruz wants to allow insurers to offer cheap, bare-bones plans alongside those that meet the more comprehensive coverage requirements of Obamacare. Critics in both parties say the proposal would essentially put people with pre-existing conditions in the Obamacare insurance pool and allow young, healthy people to buy cheaper plans in a separate pool.

Two Republican aides said GOP leaders asked the CBO to examine the impact of Cruz’s plan alongside a companion piece that would boost money to stabilize the exchanges.

The conservative Club for Growth is calling on McConnell to include Cruz’s insurance proposal, and to also repeal Obamacare’s net investment income tax. Without those two demands, the best result would be for McConnell to simply seek to repeal Obamacare, Club for Growth president David McIntosh said in a statement.

If McConnell can’t salvage his legislation, “the next best option would be to pass a real repeal bill as a standalone,” McIntosh said.