ObamaCare fight could threaten shutdown deal

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/364046-obamacare-fight-could-threaten-shutdown-deal

ObamaCare fight could threaten shutdown deal

A fight over ObamaCare is spilling into Congress’s December agenda, threatening lawmakers’ ability to keep the government open.

President Trump signed stopgap legislation Friday aimed at averting a shutdown and keeping the government funded through Dec. 22. The bill allows lawmakers to focus on the next — and seemingly more difficult — negotiating period.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have a host of priorities they want to include in the bill, but the question of funding ObamaCare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments appears to have divided Republicans.

Senate Republicans want to include the cost-sharing payments in the spending package, but House conservatives have little interest in funding subsidies they see as bailing out a law they despise.

Senate Republican leaders view the payments as a necessary bargaining chip.

In order to pass their tax-reform bill and get a much-needed legislative victory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a deal with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key swing vote.

In exchange for Collins’s vote for the tax bill, McConnell gave an “ironclad commitment” to pass a pair of bipartisan bills.

One bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would temporarily fund the cost-sharing payments. Another would provide “reinsurance” — money to pay for the costs of sick enrollees and bring down premiums.

Together, the bills would shore up ObamaCare’s insurance markets, which experts predict could be gutted by a provision of the tax bill that repeals the mandate to buy health insurance.

But the commitment to Collins came from McConnell, who can’t force the House to take up legislation. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hasn’t given any indication that he would support passing the ObamaCare bills, though he also hasn’t ruled it out.

“I wasn’t part of those conversations,” Ryan told reporters Thursday when was asked about McConnell’s promise to Collins. “I’m not deeply familiar with those conversations.”

Earlier in the week, Ryan reiterated his commitment to repealing ObamaCare, but didn’t tip his hand on the spending bill.

“We think health care is deteriorating. We think premiums are going up through the roof, insurers are pulling out and that’s not a status quo we can live with,” Ryan said.

House conservatives have also said they have little energy for passing a government funding bill that contains any ObamaCare provisions.

“None of us voted in favor of ObamaCare, so supporting it, sustaining it’s not exactly a high objective,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a leadership ally.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said that he had been assured by House leaders that ObamaCare payments would not be attached to the next funding bill.

“The three things that we’ve been told are not going to happen as part of our agreement: no CSRs, no DACA, no debt limit,” Walker said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offered protections for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. Trump ended the program with a six-month delay in September.

When asked about any assurances made to Walker, Ryan’s office declined to comment on member discussions.

Separately, Walker said any effort to add ObamaCare provisions to the spending bill would cost Republicans more votes from the GOP than they would gain with Democratic lawmakers.

If the Senate includes ObamaCare payments in the funding package, it could force a showdown with House Republicans, who would be under pressure to pass the Senate’s bill or risk a shutdown.

For now, Democrats are trying to maximize their leverage and are content to let Republicans fight among themselves.

Republicans need at least eight Democrats to break a filibuster in the Senate for any spending bill, and often rely on Democrats to make up for GOP defections in the House.

Alexander, who has long pushed for his bill to be included in a year-end spending bill, dismissed the idea that Republican senators need to pressure their House colleagues.

“The president’s for it, Sen. McConnell’s for it, most Republicans in the House have voted for both two years of cost sharing” and reinsurance in the past, Alexander said. “I feel pretty good about it.”

 

 

Bipartisan group of senators seek to block Trump cuts to drug discount program

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/363772-gop-senators-move-to-block-trump-administrations-cuts-to-drug-discount?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=12524

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Six senators, including three Republicans, are asking GOP leadership to block a Trump administration rule that slashes funding for a federal drug discount program.

The program, called 340B, requires drug companies give discounts to health-care organizations that serve high volumes of low-income patients.

But a new rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which takes effect Jan. 1, cuts Medicare payments to hospitals enrolled in the program by $1.6 billion.

The senators are urging the cuts to be reversed in the year-end spending deal.

“We recognize there are opportunities to strengthen the program through targeted clarifications and improvements to ensure it continues to fulfill its purpose with integrity and efficiency and are willing to work with stakeholders to find productive solutions in this space,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“However, with a January 1, 2018 start date and over half of the Senate and half of the House of Representatives having expressed concerns with CMS’ rule, we request your help in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the 340B program by preventing these changes in an end of the year package.”

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Debbie Stabenow(D-Mich.) all signed the letter.

The request follows a letter 51 senators sent to CMS earlier this year expressing concerns over the changes.

Hospital groups argue the rule would jeopardize the ability to serve low-income patients.

The American Hospital Association, America’s Essential Hospitals and the Association of American Medical Colleges are suing the administration to block the rule.

CMS has argued that the changes will increase access to care and lower out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries.

 

Collins’ Obamacare deal faces moment of truth

https://www.politico.com/story/2017/12/08/susan-collins-obamacare-deal-213254

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House conservatives thumb their nose at the Maine moderate’s bid to slow the demise of the health law.

Sen. Susan Collins is barreling toward yet another health care showdown with her own party. But this time, she might not have the leverage to get what she wants.

Republicans who watched Collins lead the rebellion over the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort just three months ago are playing tough on yet another high-stakes bill, wagering they can do without the Maine moderate’s swing vote and still claim a narrow year-end legislative win on tax reform.

Collins went along with the tax bill that repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to pass a pair of bills propping up Obamacare’s shaky insurance markets, including a bipartisan deal resuming payments on key subsidies that President Donald Trump halted in October.

But Speaker Paul Ryan has made clear he’s not bound by the deal, and there’s little urgency among House Republicans to do much of anything on health care before the end of the year. On Thursday, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said conservatives received assurances that talks on a spending package to keep the government open won’t address Obamacare.

“The three things we were told are not gonna happen as part of our agreement: no CSRs, no DACA, no debt limit,” he said, referring to efforts to fund Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies.

That could cost Collins’ support after she signaled that her vote on the final bill may hinge on the fate of the health care measures.

She told a Maine CBS affiliate Thursday night that she’d wait to see the final language from the conference committee working on the tax bill before committing her vote.

“I won’t make a final decision until I see what that package is,” Collins told CBS WABI 5.

One bill, known as Alexander-Murray, would temporarily restore subsidies to insurers. The second would fund a two-year reinsurance program helping health plans cover particularly expensive patients.

Senate Republicans can only afford two defections and still pass the tax bill using a fast-track procedure that requires a simple majority, with Vice President Mike Pence ready to cast the tie-breaking vote. The margin would become razor thin if Collins holds out, and Sen. Bob Corker maintains his opposition over concerns about the bill’s impact on the deficit.

Yet House Republicans still chafing over the Senate’s failure to repeal Obamacare insist they won’t bend to Collins’ demands. And while Senate Republicans are trying to keep Collins in the fold, there’s little apparent worry so far that her opposition would sink the tax effort.

“I think you guys have to find something else to be concerned about,” said Sen. Tim Scott, one of the 17 GOP lawmakers assigned to merge the House and Senate versions of the tax plan.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who coauthored Alexander-Murray and has championed its inclusion in a year-end agreement, also waved off the need to pressure House Republicans on the issue.

“The House knows our position,” he said. “When they see that they can lower premiums 18 percent … reduce the debt, reduce the amount of money going to Obamacare subsidies, I think it’ll be a Christmas present they’ll want to give to their constituents.”

One of the few moderates in a Republican conference that narrowly controls the Senate, Collins has regularly used her voice and vote to extract concessions from GOP leaders and ensure she’s a central figure in negotiations.

During the health care debate, she urged the GOP to protect Medicaid and preserve more subsidies for people to buy insurance. When they stuck with their blueprint, Collins joined fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski and John McCain in a dramatic vote that killed the months-long repeal bid.

And in the run-up to the Senate’s late-night tax vote, she secured three late changes to the bill, including the expansion of a provision allowing people to deduct hefty medical bills that House Republicans had voted to eliminate entirely.

That was on top of McConnell’s “ironclad commitment” to tackle the two health care bills at year’s end — measures that Collins claims will help offset premium increases stemming from the bill’s repeal of Obamacare’s mandate that most Americans be insured.

Collins said Thursday she considers House passage of those Obamacare bills part of that commitment, even though McConnell has only publicly agreed to “supporting passage” of them and can’t singlehandedly force the House to take up legislation.

Ryan hasn’t officially ruled out the possibility, but declined to commit to rolling either of the bills into upcoming spending agreements. Conservatives have loudly opposed any aid for Obamacare, and even moderates who support stabilizing the health law have shrugged at the exact timing.

“What the vehicle is to get it through the system, in the House and the Senate to the president’s desk, I’ll leave that to our leadership,” said Rep. Tom Reed, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Collins insists she’s taking the long view, claiming progress Thursday on trying to win over House Republicans during rounds of private negotiations.

“I remain confident, despite your skepticism, that we will eventually get that,” she said.

And as the GOP learned during the repeal debate, the whip count could shift suddenly. Sens. Jeff Flake and Ron Johnson remain wild cards, and either could conceivably join Corker and Collins in torpedoing the tax bill if they dislike the final version.

For now though, Republican leaders are signaling once again that Collins may not get everything she wants on health care — and gambling it won’t cost them a second time.

“I think that these are separate issues,” said Sen. David Perdue. “I’m hopeful that that won’t derail this [tax bill]. We’ve got to get it this done and get it on the president’s desk.”

With House conservatives’ resistance, ACA stabilization bills’ prospects get dimmer

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/aca/house-gop-alexander-murray-collins-nelson-bills?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT0RnMFkySXdPV0psWldSaCIsInQiOiJQSllQNlpcL2RhTzBDZFwvZXh5M1ZUSDJyUU5JTGw3dnh1QTVac01rZUFcL2pNUUhhMXBaQjBxK29ScHRrOHhsT3d6aE5pcFRJUWd4Sm0rYXA4S0RYVGE2N0czN2hhc2hsXC9EZk9mSGVLR0V1UFlwVDZpQmdkcll0eTBMNDUzTHlIZDIifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610&utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

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Senate GOP leaders won a key swing vote for their tax bill by pledging to pass bipartisan legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act. But now it looks like those measures’ chances of becoming law are getting dimmer.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants two bills to pass that she hopes will mitigate the effects of a provision in the tax bill that repeals the individual mandate: the Alexander-Murray bill, which would fund cost-sharing reduction payments for two years, and a bill she co-authored with Democrat Bill Nelson, which provides funding for states to establish invisible high-risk pool or reinsurance programs.

Collins voted for the Senate’s version of the tax bill—a critical win for GOP leaders, as they could only lose two votes and it failed to gain her support for previous ACA repeal bills. But she only did so after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured her the two ACA stabilization measures would pass.

Yet while some lawmakers previously said those measures could be tacked on to the short-term spending bill Congress aims to pass this week, congressional aides now say it isn’t likely to be included, according to The Wall Street Journal. Further, while House conservatives have indicated strong support for repealing the individual mandate in the final version of the GOP tax bill, they are far from on board with the two ACA stabilization bills.

For example, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson said he’s a “hard, hard, very hard no,” on the Alexander-Murray bill, per the WSJ article.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could also be a barrier to passing the two bills. His office told a meeting of congressional leadership offices on Monday that he wasn’t part of any deal between Collins and McConnell, The Hill reported. But his office didn’t say outright that it opposed the bills.

For her part, Collins said it will be “very problematic” if the ACA stabilization bills don’t pass, according to the WSJ. She also won’t commit to voting for the final version of the tax bill until she sees what comes out of a conference committee between the House and Senate.

Even if those measures do pass, there have been questions about whether they would do enough to soften the blow of repealing the individual mandate. The Congressional Budget Office has advised that the Alexander-Murray bill would do little to change its prediction that repealing the mandate would increase the uninsured rate and raise premiums.

A new analysis from Avalere found that Collins’ bill could help stabilize the individual market by increasing enrollment and reducing premiums in 2019, but the consulting firm’s experts cautioned that those effects could be overshadowed by repealing the individual mandate.

 

Healthcare Triage News: Lots of Children Are About to Lose Their Health Coverage

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/healthcare-triage-news-lots-of-children-are-about-to-lose-their-health-coverage/

Image result for Health Triage: Lots of Children Are About to Lose Their Health Coverage

Budget authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the US ran out a couple of months ago, and there’s no reauthorization in sight. A LOT of kids are insured through this program.

Beyond Showmanship And Spite: Toward A Health Care “Grand Bargain”

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20171116.24714/full/

Is a deal on health care possible? Conventional wisdom says no. “Repeal and Replace” is dead, and Republicans have moved on. So have many Democrats, toward pursuit of a single-payer plan that’s going nowhere on Capitol Hill but energizes the party’s core. Last month, President Donald Trump said he’ll “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on his own—and backed this up with executive orders that risk the stability of the insurance exchanges.

Democrats are angry that Trump and congressional Republicans want to repeal the ACA and roll back its expansion of health insurance coverage. Republicans are angry that Democrats pushed “Obamacare” through Congress on a party-line basis, and they see the ACA as big government running amok. Both parties are positioning themselves for primaries, and neither shows much interest in the risky work of compromise.

We’re alarmed. One of us is a Cato Institute-friendly “free-market”eer who wrote a book arguing (tongue in cheek) that Medicare is the work of the Devil. The other helped to develop President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign health plan and believes that failure to ensure everyone’s access to health care is an assault on human decency. But we’ve come together because we believe that failure to resolve the present impasse will have hugely destructive consequences for millions of Americans’ access to health care—and for our national confidence in our political system’s capacity to function.

Designing A Deal

President Trump has cut off cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurers and issued a directive to allow coverage options less comprehensive than the ACA requires—measures that threaten to unravel the individual and small-group markets by incentivizing younger and healthier people to exit. Meanwhile, the uncertainty that besets federal funding under the ACA for Medicaid expansion poses huge fiscal risks for states, as does Congress’s failure, so far, to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). And over the longer term, soaring private and public spending on medical services that deliver doubtful value erodes US productivity and well-being.

We think a bipartisan “grand bargain” to stabilize the US health care system is feasible—if key decision makers can move beyond showmanship and spite. To this end, we outline a deal that: honors but balances the competing values at stake, steadies both market and public mechanisms of medical care financing, and puts the nation on a path toward sustainability in health spending.

Our grand bargain builds on federalism. Vastly different values, priorities, and interests stand in the way of nationwide health policy uniformity. Allowing states to sort out controversial matters within broader limits than the ACA now imposes would permit creative policy alternatives to unfold and encourage local buy-in. We needn’t and shouldn’t mandate definitive answers to bitterly contested questions that can be reasonably negotiated at the state or local level. Instead, we should open political and market pathways for the emergence of answers to these questions over time.

Moving to this long game will require all sides to pass on their pursuit of a quick political win. Doing so is the key to moving from cycles of backlash and volatility to a system that builds confidence and delivers high-quality, compassionate health care to all.

The Long Game: Seven Steps Toward a Compromise that Can Work And Endure

With these basic principles in mind, we propose the following seven steps:

Moving Beyond Maximalism—Medicaid Rollback And “Medicare for All”

Republicans should end their campaign to roll back the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and Democrats should stand down on their quest for single payer. Both pursuits inspire true believers but will go nowhere on Capitol Hill for the imaginable future.

State Flexibility

Give states more flexibility to design their Medicaid programs and to govern their insurance exchanges. One approach would be to simply allow states complete flexibility to design their own coverage rules. Alternatively, we could give states more flexibility but ensure, via federal law, that Medicaid and plans sold on the exchanges provide affordable access to effective preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic services. States could also be allowed but not required to offer a public option through their exchanges. Instead of an all-or-none answer to the public plan question, the nation would have a framework for market-driven, state-by-state resolution. Similarly, states should be allowed to decide whether to prohibit, permit, or require enrollment of Medicaid beneficiaries in private plans. Finally, when it comes to care that serves culturally contested purposes—including, but not limited to, gender reassignment or confirmation and late termination of pregnancies for nontherapeutic reasons—states should be given autonomy to go their own ways. More federalism will achieve greater stability than would temporary nationwide imposition of one or another approach by whichever party happens to hold the electoral upper hand.

Health Savings Accounts That Appeal To Everyone

An expanded role for tax-protected health savings should have bipartisan appeal. We propose that every lawful US resident be auto-enrolled in a health savings account (HSA), funded through a refundable tax credit, scaled to income and family size. People could opt out but would lose this credit if they did. Few would do so, enabling HSAs to become a means for pursuing both market discipline and social equity.

Repeal The Individual Mandate

Sacrilege, you’re surely thinking, if you’re a Democrat who’s spent seven-plus years defending the mandate, the ACA’s most disliked element. But the mandate isn’t needed to keep healthy people in community-rated risk pools—it’s the intensity of the incentives, whether framed as penalties or subsidies, that matters. Even the mandate’s most outspoken economist-defender, Jonathan Gruber, concedes that high-enough subsidies for the purchase of insurance can substitute for it.

Such subsidies could be supplied in conservative-friendly fashion by allowing all who buy coverage on the exchanges to put HSA funds (including the tax credit we urge) toward their premiums. Sign-up for coverage could also be made more user-friendly through auto-enrollment, subject to opt-out, in “silver” plans (for tax filers who aren’t otherwise covered and aren’t Medicaid eligible). A more robust approach might condition the refundable HSA tax credit on tax filers’ purchasing insurance (or not opting out of auto-enrollment).

Congressional Authorization Of Funding For Both The ACA’s Cost-Sharing Reductions And CHIP

There is bipartisan support for restoring the ACA’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies and extending CHIP. Although annual appropriations are the norm, Congress should guarantee funding for the cost-sharing reductions for a two-year period, with automatic renewal for an additional two years if per capita subsidies rise by no more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) during the prior two years. By so doing, Congress can reaffirm its authority over appropriations while helping to stabilize markets for individual coverage. Likewise, Congress should renew CHIP’s funding for several years—we urge three as a compromise—to both stabilize state budgets and secure health care for the millions of children who depend on this program.

The “Long Game”—Reining In Medical Spending

A long-term effort to contain spending growth is essential for US fiscal stability and consumer well-being. The ACA created a framework for doing this. The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) can limit Medicare spending, subject to congressional veto, if growth exceeds target rates. And the 40 percent “Cadillac tax” on high-cost private health plans will cover a rising share of the private market as medical costs increase. Together, these policies have the potential to contain clinical spending by capping demand. But there’s bipartisan opposition to both. The IPAB, which hasn’t yet been established, and the Cadillac tax, now delayed until 2020, are fiercely opposed by stakeholders with lots to lose, and they’re at high risk of repeal.

A grand bargain should follow through on both of these strategies, plus add similar restraints on Medicaid spending and on the amounts spent to subsidize coverage through the exchanges. Most other nations employ global budgeting to control health spending. For reasons of federalism, public philosophy, and market structure, global budgeting isn’t an option for the US. But a coordinated scheme of restraint, based on the best available behavioral and economic modeling, could apply similar braking power to our entire health economy. There’s plenty of room for argument about design details (that is, should per capita growth targets be based on the CPI? The CPI plus 1 percent?) and methods of restraint (that is, the IPAB approach? Spending caps for public programs? The Cadillac tax versus caps on tax deductibility of insurance premiums?). Continued bipartisan evasion will only make the problem worse.

Pursuing Therapeutic Value

Much more must be done to use health care resources wisely as constraints tighten. Tying financial rewards closely to clinical value via paymentpractices, market exclusivity policies, and other incentives will be critical—and will require the clearing of legal and regulatory obstacles. Voluntary action must also play a role: The grand bargain we’ve sketched here creates myriad opportunities for providers, patients, and insurers to gain by insisting on value from a sector of the economy that too often fails to deliver it.

To be sure, politics could foil all efforts to forge compromise. But there is a way forward. Our proposals achieve much that is important to both the ACA’s fiercest critics and staunchest defenders. They work in concert to address the political and market crises that immediately threaten our health care system, while laying the foundation for a long-term approach to control medical spending’s unsustainable growth.

200 health, business groups endorse bipartisan ObamaCare bill

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/358202-200-health-business-groups-endorse-bipartisan-obamacare-bill

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More than 200 health and business groups have endorsed a bipartisan bill to shore up ObamaCare’s insurance markets.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced the support Wednesday as part of their latest push to get the bill passed.

Those in support include influential groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.

But the bill still faces an uphill battle to becoming law. While it appears to have the support needed to pass the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he won’t call it for a vote without approval from President Trump.

The bill would fund ObamaCare’s insurer subsidy payments for two years and give states additional flexibility to change their ObamaCare requirements.

Trump has called the bill a bailout for insurance companies and is pushing for more conservative changes.

But Murray said Tuesday she hasn’t had any discussions with the White House about making changes to the legislation, calling for it to be brought up as is.

The bill thus appears to be at a standstill. Many observers think its only real chance is to be included in a larger deal on spending in December.