When Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day, it will immediately confront a tough question: Can there be bipartisan agreement on fixing the country’s health care system?
The Senate health committee announced Tuesday that it will hold two back-to-back hearings on health care September 6 and 7. That will be the first time that Republican and Democratic senators officially gather together to examine potential ways to stabilize the Obamacare marketplace. Witnesses are expected to include governors and state insurance commissioners.
“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,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the health committee, said in a statement.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the panel, said: “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. It is through working across the aisle, transparency, and coming together to find common ground where we can.”
One of the panel’s main concerns — that many Americans may have no options on the Obamacare exchange in their area in 2018 — has largely abated. While several large insurers have pulled out of the individual market, others have stepped up to take their place. Only one county in rural Ohio, with fewer than 350 Obamacare enrollees, remains at risk of having no insurer on its exchange next year.
Another key problem, however, remains unresolved. One reason why many insurers are hiking premiums for 2018 and others are fleeing is because the Trump administration won’t commit to continue paying a key Obamacare subsidy. Insurers, along with governors and insurance commissioners, have been pressing the administration to guarantee these cost-sharing reduction payments will be made through 2018. It’s vital to the stability of the market, they say.
President Donald Trump agreed last week to make the August payment, despite earlier threats to end what he calls a bailout for insurers. He has not made a decision on future payments.
The Congressional Budget Office last week said that insurers would hike premiums on Obamacare silver plans by 20% next year if Trump stops the funding.
The hearings follow the GOP’s failed attempt last month to repeal major portions of the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare.
House Republicans had passed a bill earlier this year to gut the law, but Senate Republicans were unable to do the same. Despite months-long efforts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to rally rank and file members, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona ultimately voted “no” in a dramatic late-night scene on the Senate floor.
The spectacular political defeat helped cement a reality that Republicans have openly begun to acknowledge. Despite having railed against Obamacare for years, there is now growing acceptance within the GOP that wholesale repeal of the health care law is not viable.
Since the failed Senate vote, there have been growing calls on both sides of the political aisle to start fresh discussions to fix Obamacare on a bipartisan basis — a clear sign that even Democrats admit that the law is far from perfect.