01:58 - Source: CNN
Kasich, Hickenlooper pitch health care reform

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Bill to address health care could come in 10 days, Sen. Alexander says

Senate defeated effort to repeal Obamacare in July

CNN —  

The Republican chairman of the Senate health committee said Thursday that he hopes to release a bipartisan health care bill “within 10 days or so.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee spoke with reporters after the conclusion of a health care hearing on Capitol Hill – and just weeks after Republicans failed to pass legislation to gut major portions of Obamacare.

“I’m going to sit down with (Democratic) Sen. (Patty) Murray and with other senators and come to a conclusion about what I think we can pass,” Alexander said. “I want to be able to take to Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and Sen. (Chuck) Schumer a consensus proposal within 10 days or so.”

At the hearing, governors hailing from five states were armed with a stern and unified message: Congress and President Donald Trump had better get their acts together to strengthen Obamacare and stabilize the individual marketplace.

They made repeated requests to lawmakers to begin taking bipartisan action on health care and lamented that the dysfunction in Washington this year has only sowed uncertainty in their respective states.

“It’s time for the federal government to work with us, not against us,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “Without your help it’s like climbing one of your Colorado’s famous 14,000 foot mountains in winter without a parka or crampons. It can’t be done. We need immediate federal action.”

The most urgent topic of discussion was whether Congress would continue to fund a key set of Obamacare subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction payments. Governors, insurance commissioners and others have repeatedly urged Congress and Trump to fund the payments, which reduce deductibles and co-pays for lower-income enrollees, at least through 2018.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said Trump’s continued threats to halt those payments would simply be a “bad idea.”

“The big part about the cost sharing piece and the uncertainty associated with it is what it does to the behavior of people in the market,” Baker said. “You’re all basically trying to figure out what are the rules of the game and what is the federal government’s role going to be in participating.”

Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, bemoaned that the largest insurer in his state has proposed a steep rate hike for next year “because of the uncertainty that the President and DC has created.”

“In a time of seeming dysfunction, this committee and this Congress can work together to stabilize the individual market, beginning to eat that elephant one bite at a time,” Bullock said.

What states want

Many of the points the governors brought up echoed what a panel of five state insurance commissioners told the same group of senators the day before.

In addition to the subsidies, state leaders are also looking to streamline and add flexibility to the existing federal waiver program so they can have more control to tailor Obamacare to their state’s needs. And they want Congress to provide federal funding for a reinsurance program, which would shield insurers from costly patients.

Longer term, governors said, Congress and state officials should also work together to lower the cost of health care, particularly drug prices. Several lawmakers and governors pointed out that the United States spends a lot more on care than other nations.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of three Republican senators who ultimately voted “no” in July on a Senate bill to repeal Obamacare, expressed relief that there was finally an across-the-aisle dialogue about Obamacare.

“We can do a lot up here in the Capitol here in Washington, DC, but you all have to translate it on the ground and the fact that we haven’t had this open dialogue, to this point in time, on this particular issue area, is I think part of what’s taken us so long to get here,” Murkowski said.

But lawmakers don’t have a lot of time left to make changes. Insurers must sign contracts – locking them into participating in Obamacare next year – by Sept. 27.

Two carriers, Anthem and Optima, announced this week they were downsizing their participation for next year. Anthem said it will pull back in Kentucky, but no county will be left without options. Optima’s move leaves more than 70,000 people in Virginia at risk of not having any options on their Obamacare exchange next year.