- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Senate Health Committee will hold hearings on patching up Obamacare’s wobbly markets as soon as Congress returns in September from the summer recess, its Republican chairman and ranking Democrat announced Tuesday.

Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said they’ve invited state insurance commissioners and governors — “those closest to the problem” — to testify a few days after Labor Day, on Sept. 6 and Sept. 7.

The senators are pushing for legislation that props up Obamacare’s markets, which failed to attract young and healthy people in the early rounds, in part by funding critical “cost-sharing” reimbursements that President Trump has threatened to withhold from insurers.

Many consumers will face dwindling choices and double-digit premiums increases in the web-based marketplace set up under the 2010 Affordable Care Act once open enrollment kicks off in November. Though many consumers are shielded by taxpayer-funded subsidies that absorb their rising costs, people who do not qualify for the income-based assistance must pay full freight.

Mr. Alexander said Congress must protect the roughly 18 million Americans, including 350,000 in his state, who buy insurance on their own, after congressional Republicans failed to rally around a bill that would have repealed Obamacare and provided a transition period toward a replacement.

“My goal by the end of September is to give them peace of mind that they will be able to buy insurance at a reasonable price for the year 2018,” Mr. Alexander said. “While there are a number of issues with the American health care system, if your house is on fire, you want to put out the fire, and the fire in this case is in the individual health insurance market.”

Mr. Alexander says he wants to make it easier for states to forge their own path on health care reform in exchange for funding the cost-sharing payments, which Mr. Trump — armed with a court order that says Congress must appropriate the payments — could cut off if he chooses.

Insurers are requesting premium hikes of up to 20 percent on top of what they’d normally seek for 2018, due to the uncertainty around the payments, which reimburse them for picking up low-income customers’ costs.

The White House and leading Republicans say they haven’t given up on repealing Obamacare, though Senate Majority Mitch McConnell recently said the path forward is “somewhat murky” after three of his GOP troops joined Democrats in voting down a “skinny repeal” bill that would have prolonged negotiations with the House.

Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dean Heller of Nevada are pitching another way forward: block-grant the funding that states would normally receive under Obamacare and asking them to come up with their own plans.

The senators have met with White House officials, but leadership hasn’t latched onto the plan so far.

Ms. Murray, a Democrat, said it is time to move on, starting with bipartisan patches for Obamacare’s sore spots.

“It is clearer than ever that the path to continue making health care work better for patients and families isn’t through partisanship or backroom deals,” she said, referring to the secretive process that led to a Senate GOP replacement bill, which failed to win passage. “It is through working across the aisle, transparency, and coming together to find common ground where we can.”

Meanwhile Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, say they are working on a bipartisan plan for release ahead of the Senate hearings.

“We’re getting very close. I just talked to my guys today, men and women who are working on this with [Mr. Hickenlooper’s] people, and we think we’ll have some specifics here, I actually think we could have it within a week,” Mr. Kasich said in a joint interview on Colorado Public Radio.

The governors said their plan would focus on stabilizing the individual market, without touching Medicaid insurance for the poor.

They said Congress should continue the cost-sharing payments and ease the “employer mandate” requiring employers with 50 or more full-time workers to provide insurance or pay penalties. The governors think the 50-employee cap is too low.

Mr. Hickenlooper also said it is important to have a “reinsurance” program to blunt the costs of particularly expensive consumers, so other consumers don’t have to pay more.

The governors said government-run, single-payer health care is not a part of their plan.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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