Next month the Senate will try a novel approach to break away from seven years of polarization on health care: actual committee hearings, with expert witnesses and input from lawmakers in both parties.
And if those go well, Congress could see an even unlikelier development—the advance of viable, bipartisan legislation to fix parts of the Affordable Care Act.
The hearings are the brainchild of Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who has been talking for months about the need to stabilize Obamacare’s individual insurance market. What makes this effort different is that following the GOP’s failure to repeal and replace the law, Alexander now has the blessing of his party’s leadership and buy-in from the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington State.
The two senators have collaborated on significant legislation before, first to rewrite the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law and then on the 21st Century Cures Act to direct more money toward, and loosen restrictions on, medical research. Over the past few weeks, aides to Alexander and Murray have worked together to come up with a bipartisan witness list for back-to-back days of hearings on September 6 and 7. The first will feature testimony from state insurance commissioners (including those from Tennessee and Washington), while the next day the committee will hear from five governors representing states from different regions of the country. Aides said the committee hopes to have two more hearings on health care the following week.
Alexander, aides said, has an ambitious goal of moving quickly from hearings to drafting legislation that would, at minimum, guarantee the continued payment of cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurance companies and allow states more flexibility to adjust insurance rules through an existing provision of the Affordable Care Act known as Section 1332. “I’m looking for the simplest bill possible that Republicans and Democrats can agree on that will stabilize the individual insurance market,” Alexander told reporters earlier this month.
The cost-sharing reduction payments are a top priority for Democrats since they are a part of Obamacare designed to help insurers afford the cost of insuring expensive patients without jacking up premiums for everyone else. Because the payments have been tied up in litigation brought by House Republicans against the Obama administration, President Trump has threatened to withhold them on nearly a monthly basis, only to make them at the last minute. Insurers have cited the uncertainty in announcing their decisions to leave certain markets and raise premiums, handing Democrats ammunition to accuse the Trump administration of sabotaging the law. Even most Republicans have encouraged the president to make the payments, but new legislation is the only way to guarantee them since the legal question at issue is whether Congress authorized the money in the first place.
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