Bipartisan Senate Budget Deal Boosts Health Programs

Bipartisan Senate Budget Deal Boosts Health Programs

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In a rare show of bipartisanship for the mostly polarized 115th Congress, Republican and Democratic Senate leaders announced a two-year budget deal that would increase federal spending for defense as well as key domestic priorities, including many health programs.

Not in the deal, for which the path to the president’s desk remains unclear, is any bipartisan legislation aimed at shoring up the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance marketplaces. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) a vote on health legislation in exchange for her vote for the GOP tax bill in December. So far, that vote has not materialized.

The deal does appear to include almost every other health priority Democrats have been pushing the past several months, including two years of renewed funding for community health centers and a series of other health programs Congress failed to provide for before they technically expired last year.

“I believe we have reached a budget deal that neither side loves but both sides can be proud of,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor. “That’s compromise. That’s governing.”

Said McConnell, “This bill represents a significant bipartisan step forward.”

Senate leaders are still negotiating last details of the accord, including the size of a cut to the ACA’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, which would help offset the costs of this legislation.

According to documents circulating on Capitol Hill, the deal includes $6 billion in funding for treatment of mental health issues and opioid addiction, $2 billion in extra funding for the National Institutes of Health, and an additional four-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which builds on the six years approved by Congress last month.

In the Medicare program, the deal would accelerate the closing of the “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug coverage that requires seniors to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket before catastrophic coverage kicks in. It would also repeal the controversial Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which is charged with holding down Medicare spending for the federal government if it exceeds a certain level. Members have never been appointed to the board, however, and its use has not so far been triggered by Medicare spending. Both the closure of the doughnut hole and creation of the IPAB were part of the ACA.

The agreement would also fund a host of more limited health programs — some of which are known as “extenders” because they often ride along with other, larger health or spending bills.

Those programs include more than $7 billion in funding for the nation’s federally funded community health centers. The clinics serve 27 million low-income people and saw their funding lapse last fall — a delay advocates said had already complicated budgeting and staffing decisions for many clinics.

And in a victory for the physical therapy industry and patient advocates, the accord would permanently repeal a limit on Medicare’s coverage of physical therapy, speech-language pathology and outpatient treatment. Previously, the program capped coverage after $2,010 worth of occupational therapy and another $2,010 for speech-language therapy and physical therapy combined. But Congress had long taken action to delay those caps or provide exemptions — meaning they had never actually taken effect.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, permanently repealing the caps would cost about $6.47 billion over the next decade.

Lawmakers would also forestall cuts mandated by the ACA to reduce the payments made to so-called Disproportionate Share Hospitals, which serve high rates of low-income patients. Those cuts have been delayed continuously since the law’s 2010 passage.

Limited programs are also affected. The deal would fund for five years the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, a program that helps guide low-income, at-risk mothers in parenting. It served about 160,000 families in fiscal year 2016.

“We are relieved that there is a deal for a 5-year reauthorization of MIECHV,” said Lori Freeman, CEO of advocacy group the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, in an emailed statement. “States, home visitors and families have been in limbo for the past several months, and this news will bring the stability they need to continue this successful program.”

And the budget deal funds programs that encourage doctors to practice in medically underserved areas, providing just under $500 million over the next two years for the National Health Service Corps and another $363 million over two years to the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program, which places medical residents in Community Health Centers.

 

Among Those Who Want to Lower Drug Prices, Cacophony, Not Consensus

https://www.statnews.com/2018/01/26/lobbying-drug-prices-health-care/

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Everyone seems to want lower drug prices. 5 reasons why that hasn’t happened.

Of all his campaign promises, President Trump’s vow to bring down drug prices was perhaps the most popular.

An assortment of interest groups spoke out loudly and passionately on the need for action, from hospitals to doctors to insurers to generic drug makers to patients themselves.

And in many ways, they seem to have the clout, and resources, to counter drug makers’ slick ad campaigns and lobbying firepower. Last year, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the American Hospital Association together spent more than $45 million lobbying Congress, almost twice what the drug makers’ group, PhRMA, spent in the same time period.

Instead, congressional efforts to lower drug prices are at a total standstill. In interviews with STAT, lobbyists, lawmakers, and congressional staffers, Republicans and Democrats alike, said the most powerful health industry players conspicuously disagree about exactly how to move forward. Every group pushes its own priorities and strategies — a cacophony that makes it unlikely that crushing drug prices will change any time soon.

“They all say, ‘Yes, we should [lower drug prices], and someone else is responsible for it,’” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, told STAT. “Everybody needs to come to the table and say what can my industry do, what can pharma do. … That will be how we solve this.”

Solving it, however, seems a stretch when just addressing it has gone nowhere. Despite President Trump’s insistence, on the campaign trail and in office, that he will lower drug prices, there has been no major federal effort to do so in the first year of his administration.

The disarray was on full display at a recent congressional hearing, when representatives from nearly every major trade group with any stake in the country’s drug prices — AMA, AHIP, and AHA included — spent almost an hour and a half testifying without more than a cursory discussion of how Congress could fix the problem. When they finally did talk solutions, outside of buzzy phrases like “increase transparency,” almost none of their answers matched.

So why can’t the broader health care industry agree on how to make drugs more affordable? Here are five factors.

1. Health care lobbyists are stuck playing defense.

When it comes to drug pricing, hospitals, insurers, and PBMs in particular have spent the last year fending off congressional inquiries into their own business practices — leaving little time to go on the offensive.

Meanwhile PhRMA has alternately pointed at hospitals, insurers, and PBMs as the profiteers in the current system.

It’s “lobbying 101, to muddy the waters,” according to Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). And in the complicated world of drug pricing, it’s an effective strategy.

Drug makers’ efforts to vilify PBMs and to demand more transparency about their role in the supply chain are well-documented. The Washington Post earlier this year called pharma’s tactics against those players an effort to “start an industry war.”

They’ve opened a similar front against insurers, ramping up rhetoric and backing new patient groups that decry how higher deductibles and copays mean steeper costs for consumers, even when list prices don’t change much.

And they’ve accused hospitals of marking up the price of drugs and pocketing the difference, both in general and specifically as part of a push to overhaul the hot-button 340B drug discount program.

“That disarray you talk about, it’s not accidental,” Welch said. “The flames of that are fanned by pharma, [which] is doing everything they can to create confusion about what’s the right remedy,” he said.

The problem, according to Walid Gellad, who leads the University of Pittsburgh Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing, “is that every part of the industry says things that are correct. It is correct that one of the reasons patients are feeling such high prices is because they have to pay coinsurance and big deductibles,” Gellad said, noting that pharma’s concerns with the PBMs and hospitals had some validity, too. “And it’s true that pharma sets the list prices high. They do do that.”

PhRMA spokesman Robby Zirkelbach also said there was a reason for lawmakers’ interest in so many players: the validity of the concerns. He pointed to data that showed slowing growth of prescription drug prices and increasing copays and deductibles.

“There’s no wonder that people are continuing to dig into this issue, and what they’re realizing is that to really be able to address the drug pricing concerns that people have raised, you’ve got to address some of the misaligned incentives in the system,” he said. “This is a complicated system, and we’ve got to look at how money flows across the system.”

And the tactic has successfully diverted lawmakers’ attention. Republicans in both chambers of Congress have held hearings in the past year looking at the “supply chain” that goes into the cost of drugs — broadening their spotlight from the companies that set the price to the other actors that can impact it. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want to better examine the vast array of players before they make any sudden policy moves.

“There are some that zero in on just one piece of the cost curve, so what I’m trying to do on the committee is look methodically at every piece,” Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, told STAT. “We’re going to look at PBMs, we’re going to look at hospital costs, we’re going to look at what insurance costs. We’re going to look top to bottom.”

2. Congress isn’t jumping to act.

Beyond hearings, Congress hasn’t actually shown great appetite to tackle drug pricing. And that lethargy can dampen lobbyists’ enthusiasm to throw their weight and resources behind a given campaign or piece of legislation.

One physician lobbyist called it a “chicken and the egg” problem, wondering whether it would be Congress or the industries to first signal their motivation to act.

Case in point: the so-called CREATES Act. It’s one of the few pieces of drug price legislation that has the support of hospitals, insurers, doctors and a whole host of other groups and companies. But it’s languishing on Congress’s to-do list.

The bill, like its counterpart, the Fast Generics Act, takes aim at what supporters call delay tactics that drug makers use to keep generic competitors off the market. The legislation would give generic manufacturers that are legitimately seeking product samples the right to sue the drug makers if they refuse to hand over those samples.

It’s a small but meaningful change — the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the legislation could save Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal government health programs more than $3 billion over 10 years.

And industry has been pushing the legislation, albeit without the same urgency that’s animated other priorities. Together, many of the trade associations — along with some three dozen other groups and companies, including Walmart, CVS, and AARP — formed a coalition, the so-called Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, to push the bill. They hired a handful of lobbyists who are largely focused on the issue, too, to the tune of $440,000 over 2017.

But as one supporter put it, “it’s kind of telling that it has to be such an egregious abuse for everyone to coalesce.”

So far, drug makers have blocked attempts to include the measure in the 21st Century Cures Act that passed in 2016 or in last year’s reauthorization of FDA user-fee agreements, a priority for the drug industry. They say the bill will weaken protections for patients and spur “meritless, wasteful litigation.”

Supporters were nonetheless optimistic about the path forward for the bill. Several lobbyists backing the effort, along with staffers in both the House and Senate, told STAT there is momentum on Capitol Hill to include the measure in an upcoming spending package since it could help offset some other spending.

3. Each industry has very different priorities, even when they do agree.

Even when they do agree — as on CREATES, for example — health industry lobbyists don’t always prioritize the same issues. Some may have spent 2017 more focused on the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act than drug pricing. Others might have they used their meetings with lawmakers to defend a tax credit. Or perhaps some argue for other, more important drug pricing policies that need to be tackled first.

“When you work with these other groups, they rank [policy proposals] differently. There are certain things they want first. So it’s not only about finding solutions you can agree on, but about which ones you want to do first,” one patient advocate told STAT.

Drug makers, on the other hand? Pricing is their primary concern.

Other groups “have their own fish to fry, their own priorities,” said David Mitchell, the founder of the patient group Patients for Affordable Drugs. For drug companies, “it’s their number one issue: drug pricing. All the rest of them have their own number one issues, and drug prices aren’t it.”

4. All the major players have a stake in the status quo.  

Academics had another easy explanation for the lack of consensus — and the lack of concerted effort — from health care industry groups that profess an interest in lowering drug prices. They all profit from the current system.

Hospitals are paying more for drugs for patients admitted to the hospital, but on the flip side, at least some facilities are profiting from reimbursements for drugs in outpatient settings and in their own specialty pharmacies, according to Peter Bach, the director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes. PBMs also earn bigger rebates if the list prices are higher. And doctors, too, make more money under Medicare rules if they administer a more expensive drug to a given patient.

“People are paying these bills and the pie is getting bigger. Everyone’s arguing about where the knife comes in and cuts the slices of pie,” he said. “Everybody thinks everybody else is getting an unfair share.”

Gellad agreed.

“Everyone is making a lot of money. No one’s gone broke. So they don’t want to change things,” he said. “And that’s why the industry is not going to all agree to do something [on drug prices], because they’d all have to agree to lose money. Why would anyone agree to do that?”

5. There’s no silver bullet.

It’s not as if there’s one easy solution, ripe for the picking, if only groups could agree on it, several trade association officials told STAT. The piecemeal approach — getting behind policies like CREATES and then turning to other, smaller issues — may be the best way to approach the issue, they argued.

Similarly, lawmakers said there’s no one fix.

“The reason you haven’t seen all of the groups coalesce around one proposal — it’s not really clear what the solution is at this point because it’s such an opaque process,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) told STAT. “It’s hard to see what one solution there would be.”

Mitchell, along with a spokesman for the Association of Accessible Medicines, which represents generic manufacturers, also pointed to growing consensus behind smaller, targeted policies that would keep branded drug manufacturers from “gaming the system” — policies like CREATES and other changes to the patent system that could garner broader support. They each noted, too, that newly confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, himself a former drug company executive, had voiced support for those changes during confirmation hearings.

They also preached patience. Bach, a former senior adviser to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, likened the push to the decades of jockeying between various environmental groups over fossil fuel regulation.

“Environmental regulation is a classic example of this,” Bach said. “You have this broad array of interested parties that would like to see movement, but the flavor of the movement they want, the ranking of their priorities, it’s not ‘one and only,’ even if it’s top [priority] — against a highly concentrated entity that specifically has a single agenda counter to it, with deep influence. That is a very hard row to hoe.”

“We are making progress,” he added. “But we get there in fits and starts.”

Bipartisan Bill Would Increase Competition Among Drug Manufacturers and Lower Drug Prices

http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/blog/2018/jan/bipartisan-bill-drug-manufacturers-competition-prices?omnicid=EALERT1349313&mid=henrykotula@yahoo.com

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Congress is considering including bipartisan legislation that could expedite the availability of lower-priced generic drugs in its must-pass bill to fund the federal government in 2018. The legislation, called the CREATES Act, tackles one of the numerous problems driving high drug prices — brand-name drug manufacturers’ use of anticompetitive tactics to block access to generic drugs — that we describe in our report, Getting to the Root of High Prescription Drug Prices: Drivers and Potential Solutions. If passed, the CREATES Act, which has bipartisan support, would increase the development and availability of generic drugs by addressing anticompetitive behaviors of certain brand-name manufacturers that use limited distribution systems and congressionally mandated risk-mitigation programs as a way to delay generic drug development. And because the Act could save the federal government more than $3 billion over 10 years, it could help pay for other necessary federal spending, including funding for community health centers.

Purpose of the Bill

The Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act of 1984 — commonly referred to as the Hatch-Waxman Act — created the generic drug market in order to balance incentives for innovation (i.e., extended patent terms and market exclusivity protections) with a system that ensures safe, therapeutically equivalent generic drugs are available at lower prices when patents and exclusivities expire. Before a generic drug can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it must demonstrate that it is bioequivalent to the brand-name drug it intends to compete against on the market.

The Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 authorized the FDA, when there are safety concerns like increased toxicity or risk factors, to require manufacturers to adhere to a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, or REMS. A REMS program can have four components: patient information, communication plan, elements to assure safe use (ETASU), and implementation system.

Some brand-name drug manufacturers have misused REMS programs to block generic drug manufacturer access in two different ways. First, a brand-name manufacturer may prevent a potential generic competitor from getting access to samples for bioequivalence testing by using the REMS program with ETASU to limit who can access or purchase the drug. More than half of drugs with REMS programs have limited distribution, which restricts access for generic manufacturers. Without access to samples of brand-name products, generic manufacturers cannot conduct bioequivalence testing, which is required for FDA approval of a generic.

Second, if a brand-name drug is subject to an FDA-mandated REMS, then the generic competitor drug is also.1  Shared REMS programs are generally required by statute to be implemented for the brand-name drug and the generic versions. Negotiations between manufacturers for a shared REMS program include confidentiality, product liability concerns, antitrust concerns, and access to a license for REMS program elements that are patented. Brand-name manufacturers can intentionally delay establishing a single, shared REMS program, which blocks the generic drug from the market. As of January 26, 2018, 10 of the 72 REMS programs were shared.

In addition to FDA-mandated REMS programs, manufacturers may voluntarily institute a REMS program or create a limited distribution system to control who may access their drug by allowing dispensing from a limited number of specialty pharmacies. For example, an investigation by the Senate Aging Committee found that Turing Pharmaceuticals put a limited distribution system into place in order to block competitors’ access to samples and significantly increase the drug price. (Daraprim was not subject to an FDA-mandated REMS program.) The anticompetitive behaviors associated with REMS programs and limited distribution systems are estimated to cost patients more than $5 billion each year.

Potential Impact

The CREATES Act would enable a generic manufacturer facing one of these delay tactics to bring an action in federal court for injunctive relief (i.e., to obtain the sample it needs, or to enter into court-supervised negotiations for a shared safety protocol). The CREATES Act would expedite legal review and change the burden from proving a violation of antitrust law to one in which the generic manufacturer would need to only prove that sufficient quantity of samples were being withheld by the brand-name manufacturer. In addition, the CREATES Act would permit the generic manufacturer to work with the FDA to establish its own REMS with ETASU that are comparable to the brand-name manufacturer’s REMS program.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has not officially scored the CREATES Act, but has estimated that similar legislation would save the federal government more than $3 billion over 10 years.2

Taking these steps to counter brand-name manufacturer tactics to delay generic competition could help address one of the factors driving high prescription drug prices. Such action also may serve as an important opening for further conversations on how we can regain the balance of incentives for drug innovation and competition that was established under the Hatch-Waxman Act.

 

The GOP is getting closer to passing its tax bill. Here’s what it could mean for health insurers

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/gop-tax-reform-bill-health-insurers-individual-mandate?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTTJFMk1XWm1aalV4WVRsayIsInQiOiJ2STJJYW85ZmhWc0tKakYzU2VlV05Ydk5NbVNpd1orNWt0anFYUW9GcDZkTDBMSmJlTGs0XC9tNDBIT3RmMDhzdmtFazBaTWpDYm9hMVplUjhSTElrSVgreHBJd3FLXC9YaHhzMXpPR2Y4MHVNRVJqcDVvMDVzOGdGQUNIMCtobDZtIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

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The House and Senate have agreed upon a unified tax overhaul bill, putting Republicans on the fast track to pass legislation that has significant implications for the health insurance industry.

For one, the compromise tax bill will repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate penalty, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Wednesday. To McConnell, axing the mandate will offer “relief to low- and middle-income Americans who have struggled under an unpopular and unworkable law.”

Health insurers and the healthcare industry at large have opposed removing the key ACA provision without a viable alternative to encourage healthy consumers to buy coverage, arguing that doing so will destabilize the individual markets. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that repealing the mandate would increase the number of uninsured people by 13 million over the next 10 years and hike individual market premiums by 10% during most years of that decade.

Yet while the individual mandate repeal is problematic for insurers that do business on the ACA exchanges, nearly all insurance companies stand to gain from the GOP tax bill overall, according to Leerink Partners analyst Ana Gupte, Ph.D. She estimates that insurers can capture about 10% to 15% of the potential 25% upside from the legislation, subject to regulatory constraints such as medical loss ratio rules and competitive pricing constraints.

Likely the biggest gain for insurers is the fact that, per the New York Times, the compromise bill sets the corporate tax rate at 21%—significantly lower than the current rate of 35%.

Though the House and Senate have ironed out the differences in their bills, the final version still must be approved by both chambers. GOP leaders have but two votes to spare in the Senate, and will likely have to include two bipartisan measures to shore up the ACA in Congress’ year-end spending bill to win the support of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins said on Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence assured her that those measures would make it into the spending bill, according to The Hill. Yet some House conservatives have expressed opposition to the bills, which would provide funding for cost-sharing reduction payments and state-based reinsurance programs, among other provisions.

Meanwhile, the results of the headline-grabbing Senate race in Alabama have put a major crimp in Republicans’ plans to retry repealing the ACA. Once Democrat Doug Jones officially takes his seat, the GOP will have an even slimmer majority in the Senate, where the defection of a handful of moderate Republicans was already enough to kill several repeal bills earlier this year.

 

Tax Bill Threatens Our Health and Our Democracy

http://www.chcf.org/articles/2017/12/tax-bill-threatens-our-democracy

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Earlier this month, the Senate passed legislation that would overhaul the tax code, make dramatic changes to federal health care policy, and undermine the budgets of Medicaid and Medicare, two pillars of the American health care system. The House and Senate are now trying to reconcile their two tax bills. Each passed the legislation on a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill in the Senate.

Congress is now one step away from passing a tax bill that will have a profound effect on the health and well-being of Americans for a generation. No one should forget that, to get this close, the Senate rushed to approve a deeply unpopular proposal with little transparency and due diligence — and no bipartisanship. Left unchecked, these actions will harm millions of Americans — and American democracy itself.

Even though the legislation has been framed as a tax bill, it is very much a health care bill. The Senate bill would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate, which would lead to the destabilization of the individual health insurance market. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that this change alone would increase individual premiums by 10% a year and cause as many as 13 million Americans to join the ranks of the uninsured by the end of the next decade. In California, the uninsured population would grow by 1.7 million people. Congress may still pass separate legislation to restore some stability to the individual market, but the leading proposals are too modest to prevent much damage.

Seismic Impact

On its own, the language in the tax bills would trigger a major earthquake in the health care system, and the aftershocks of this tax bill would be just as dangerous. By eliminating more than $1 trillion of federal revenue, the administration and congressional leaders are manufacturing a budget crisis that would likely lead to automatic cuts to Medicare under federal rules. The CBO, which examined the House bill, has estimated that those cuts could be around $25 billion a year. Republican leaders have also indicated they intend to use the revenue shortfall that they are engineering with this tax bill to seek deep cuts in safety-net programs, starting with Medicaid.

This isn’t merely about what the legislation will do to health care, because it also would exacerbate inequality and worsen health disparities in this country. Under both the House and Senate bills, low- and middle-income families would pay more in taxes and have a harder time paying not just for health care, but also for food, housing, child care, education, and other basic needs. When people struggle so much to make ends meet, they suffer more from illness and die younger. And if inequality keeps getting worse, it will undermine the economic, social, and political stability upon which our nation depends.

The burden on Californians would be particularly heavy. Our families would no longer be able to deduct what they pay in state and local taxes on their federal tax returns. This change alone would take more than $112 billion a year out of the pockets of hardworking Californians — more than any other state. The fact that Californians would be paying more in federal taxes would inevitably put new pressure on our state and municipal governments to reduce their taxes. Under that scenario, it is not hard to imagine a new wave of painful state and local budget cuts.

The irony is that California actually has the power to stop this runaway train. If the entire California congressional delegation worked together to protect their constituents, and if they were united and strong, they could prevent many — if not all — of the worst provisions in the tax bills from becoming law.

This moment is a test of leadership. Nothing less than the health of our people — and our democracy — are at stake.

AARP: Congress must prevent ‘sudden cut’ to Medicare in 2018

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/363825-aarp-congress-must-prevent-sudden-cut-to-medicare-in-2018

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The AARP is urging House and Senate leaders to waive congressional rules so the Republican tax bill doesn’t trigger deep cuts to Medicare.

If Republicans pass their tax bill, which would add an estimated $1 trillion to the federal deficit, congressional “pay-as-you-go” rules would require an immediate $150 billion in mandatory spending cuts to offset the impact.

“The sudden cut to Medicare provider funding in 2018 would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries,” AARP said in a letter sent to congressional leaders Thursday.

Under the bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Medicare would be faced with a $25 billion cut in fiscal 2018.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have promised the cuts won’t happen.

In a joint statement sent just ahead of the Senate vote on the tax bill last week, Ryan and McConnell said there is “no reason to believe that Congress would not act again to prevent a sequester, and we will work to ensure these spending cuts are prevented.”

Lawmakers have voted numerous times in the past to waive the rule, and even House conservatives have said they’ll likely support a waiver once the tax bill passes.

“I can’t imagine any scenario where there’s not a waiver for PAYGO,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Wednesday. “It’s using a hammer when maybe a scalpel would do.”

But in the Senate at least, Republicans will need the support of Democrats to waive the rules. So far, they have been reluctant to offer it.

 

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.”