Senate Republicans seek to move past GOP-only health debate

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(Bloomberg) – Top Senate Republicans are trying to move on from their partisan drive to replace the Affordable Care Act despite urging from President Donald Trump to keep seeking a broad alternative to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said Tuesday he sees little chance of further action on health care any time soon after last week’s drive for a GOP-only replacement collapsed.

“We’ve got to let it simmer for a while until we get both sides into a position where they see we’ve got to do something here,” said Hatch, a Utah Republican.

The Senate health committee will begin bipartisan hearings in early September on stabilizing and strengthening Obamacare’s individual insurance market, Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington said in a joint statement.

“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, and the fire in this case is the individual insurance market,” Alexander said Tuesday. “Both Republicans and Democrats agree on this.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Tuesday that while the GOP didn’t have the votes for a health plan last week, he still sees an opportunity later to pass a measure under a fast-track procedure. Republicans are continuing to seek analyses on several proposals from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, he said.

For now, the Senate is working to confirm Christopher Wray as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and pass bills on veterans’ benefits and the Food and Drug Administration before the August recess.

The White House continues to seek action on a Republican-only healthcare measure, giving particular focus to a proposal by Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Their plan would send federal healthcare funds to the states in block grants, while keeping in place Obamacare’s mandates that all Americans have insurance and most employers provide it.

Trump met with Graham to discuss the idea just hours after GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona cast the decisive vote early Friday in the 49-51 rejection of a bare-bones repeal of Obamacare. Cassidy met at the White House Monday with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and four Republican governors, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

“We need governors on the front end, not on the receiving end,” Cassidy told reporters hours after his meeting.

Alexander said he wants to come up with a plan to stabilize insurance markets before Sept. 27, when insurers must sign contracts for sales in 2018. The committee plans to hear from state insurance officials, patients, governors, insurance companies and healthcare experts, Alexander and Murray said.

In the meantime, Alexander has urged Trump to fund cost-sharing subsidies for insurers through September to give Congress time to finance the payments for a year. The president has repeatedly threatened to halt such payments.

California said Tuesday that health insurers that sell Obamacare plans in the state would double premium increases for some plans next year if Trump carries out his threat to end the subsidies. Insurers in other states have also cited uncertainty around the law, and the subsidies, as a driver of rate increases for next year.

‘Magic Pill’

Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois said that following action on insurance exchanges and cost-sharing subsidies, something longer term would be needed though he dismissed the idea that the Graham-Cassidy proposal is an easy answer to Obamacare’s challenges.

“I want to slow down this magic-pill theory, that there is just one idea out there that is going to solve it all,” Durbin said. “I don’t believe that. I want everybody to come up with their ideas. I think that’s how you get something constructive. But it isn’t just one thing, it isn’t just say, ‘Let’s send it all back to the states.’”

Second-ranking Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas told reporters Monday that the GOP probably lacks the votes to bring anything to the floor because McCain is in Arizona undergoing treatment for brain cancer until at least September. McCain provided critical support to allow debate on an Obamacare replacement last week, despite his final “no” vote.

“Everything is harder when you have people who are missing, and certainly that would have an effect,” Cornyn said.

The two other Republicans who voted with Democrats against the healthcare plan, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told reporters that onlookers in airports cheered when they each arrived home after helping defeat the effort. Both are calling for bipartisanship and for committee hearings to debate further proposals.

“It’s just reinforced my desire to make sure that in these next steps we are open, that we are talking with everybody,” Murkowski said. She said she’s in no rush to push forward on the Graham-Cassidy plan or any other proposal.

“Time should not be our enemy,” Murkowski said. “We’ve been treating it that way.”

Bloomberg News