From premiums to politics: 5 predictions for the health insurance industry in 2018

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/year-preview-predictions-politics-aca-mergers?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTnpreE9HSTFPVFJqWldZMSIsInQiOiJNM0NTa1ZBZW1kU001bkx4SEcwNmtSeEFVNG9oZnpUbEF2UVpMY1lDUWNZYm8zZTFuejJNUGpPOTJuYVlXTlZwWHdXU1hrRm50Z1NFbHJGRjdUMld6U1JoYWo0enNaUlEzNldab2tcL3hxV3NPaTBlK2xKbmVSQmgwMTE2NFZpYzgifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

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After the demise of two major insurer mergers and multiple Affordable Care Act repeal attempts, few could argue that 2017 wasn’t an eventful year for the health insurance industry.

But 2018 is shaping up to be just as interesting—complete with more political wrangling, M&A intrigue and evidence that, despite all this uncertainty, insurers are pushing ahead and embracing innovation.

Read on for our predictions about what’s in store for the industry in the coming months.

1. The CVS-Aetna deal will have a domino effect in the healthcare industry

While the lines between payer, provider and pharmacy benefits manager have been blurring for a while now, CVS’ $69 billion deal to purchase Aetna is undoubtedly a game-changer.

The move was likely motivated by a desire to compete with UnitedHealth’s thriving Optum subsidiary, which has its own PBM and an increasing presence in care delivery. So it stands to reason that other major insurers will try to strike deals of their own that mimic that scale and level of diversification.

Already, Humana has made a bid to purchase part of hospice- and home-health giant Kindred Healthcare. There’s also been speculation that it is preparing to be acquired—possibly by Cigna, or in a deal that would mimic CVS-Aetna, Walmart or Walgreens.

Other insurers may also seek to build PBM capabilities, following in the footsteps of UnitedHealth, a combined CVS-Aetna and Anthem, which announced in October that it would team up with CVS to create an in-house PBM called IngenioRx.

It’s certainly possible, however, that CVS’ purchase of Aetna will not pass regulatory muster. While it would require less divestment than the ill-fated Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Humana deals, the DOJ’s decision to block another vertical deal—between AT&T and Time Warner—doesn’t bode well for its chances.

2. Republicans and Democrats will be forced to work together on ACA fixes

With one less Republican senator—thanks to Alabama’s election of Democrat Doug Jones—the GOP likely won’t have the votes to pass a repeal bill without bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged as much before Congress’ holiday recess, though he clarified the next day that he would be happy to pass an ACA repeal bill if there are enough votes for it.

McConnell also owes Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as he had promised her he’d pass her reinsurance bill and a bill that would fund cost-sharing reduction payments this year. While Collins held up her end of the bargain—voting for the GOP tax bill—the ACA fixes didn’t make it into the stopgap spending bill Congress passed on Dec. 21.

Democrats, meanwhile, will also be motivated to reach across the aisle. The repeal of the individual mandate will likely put the ACA on more unstable footing, lending more urgency than ever to the task of shoring up the exchanges.

Both parties will also likely face pressure from the healthcare industry’s biggest lobbying groups to get some sort of ACA fix passed. The push to do so, however, will be complicated by the full slate of legislative priorities Congress is facing in the new year, including reauthorizing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

3. There will be more premium hikes and insurer exits in the individual market

The individual mandate is now gone, and arguments about its effectiveness aside, that was one of the mechanisms that encouraged healthy people to buy insurance and stay covered. Even if the effect on coverage levels is minimal, the move is probably going to be enough to push risk-averse insurers to raise rates and even exit more rating areas in 2019.

There is also little indication that large insurers that have exited will come back anytime soon. After all, why invest resources in an unstable market when there are far more steady and lucrative markets like Medicare Advantage?

Adding to the policy uncertainty for the remaining insurers, there is no guarantee that Congress will authorize short-term funding for cost-sharing reduction payments. Many insurers raised their 2018 rates to account for the possibility of them disappearing—which turned out to be a wise move—so it stands to reason they’d have to do the same for 2019.

Perhaps the best harbinger of what’s to come came from a study conducted in November, which noted that the actions insurers and state regulators took to fill in “bare counties” on the ACA exchanges are “temporary and unsustainable without long-term federal action.” And with Republicans in charge, federal action to patch up the exchanges is unlikely.

4. Federal agencies will start to carry out Trump’s executive order—and states will push back

Although it was overshadowed by all the repeal-and-replace drama, Trump’s healthcare-focused executive order has huge implications for the industry. Put simply, it paves the way for expanded use of association health plans, short-term health plans and employer-based health reimbursement arrangements.

In 2018, we’re likely to see the relevant agencies start issuing rules to implement the order, which could dramatically change the individual market as we know it—and not for the better. Such rulemaking would also set the stage for a power struggle between the federal government and left-leaning states.

In fact, a coalition of healthcare organizations have urged state insurance commissioners to take steps to override any rules resulting from the executive order. For example, states could restore the three-month limit on short-term health plans if agencies unwind that Obama-era rule on the federal level.

Since only certain states are likely to heed these suggestions, the upshot of Trump’s executive order will be to create a patchwork of individual market rules across the country. If that sounds strangely like what the individual insurance markets were like before the ACA, well, that’s precisely the point.

5. Payers’ move to value-based payment models will continue, with or without the feds leading the way

On the one hand, the Trump administration clearly wants to scale back the federal government’s role in pushing payers and providers away from fee-for-service payment models. The surest sign was CMS’ announcement late last year that it would endmandatory bundled payment models for hip fractures and cardiac care.

Some have worried that moving away from those mandatory programs would be a setback for the move to value-based payments, given that the feds play a powerful role in galvanizing the industry to change. In addition, the administration wants to take the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in a “new direction”—one that CMS Administrator Seema Verma said would “move away from the assumption that Washington can engineer a more efficient healthcare system from afar.”

But even if the federal government will take a lighter touch in the move from volume to value, it’s not likely that the private sector will take that as a cue to reverse course. On the payer side, especially, too many industry-leading companies have invested heavily in alternative payment models to turn back now. And they have compelling business reasons to keep investing in those models, given their potential to lower costs and improve care quality.

 

Health insurer Oscar nears $1 billion in revenue

https://www.axios.com/oscar-2518896548.html

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Oscar, the healthcare insurance upstart co-founded by Joshua Kushner, tells Axios that it is expecting to generate nearly $1 billion in premium revenue for 2018. That’s up from “more than $300 million” in 2017 premium revenue. It also says that its insurance underwriting business is profitable for the first time, although the overall company remains in the red.

Why it matters: Oscar continues to grow, despite having originally launched to provide health insurance to individuals under an Affordable Care Act that the Trump Administration has been slowly dismantling.

  • More numbers: The company expects around 250,000 members in the individual markets, including in New York and California where open enrollment continues, representing around a 2.5x increase over last year, and doesn’t include Oscar’s recent expansion into employer plans.

Oscar CEO Mario Schlosser tells Axios that he isn’t too concerned about how the new tax bill repeals the ACA’s individual mandate, saying that much of the early instability has dissipated:

“It took a while to figure out how things work, but a lot of people now just have come around to thinking it’s smart to have health insurance. The loss of the mandate will have some impact on some states around country, but it won’t affect the overall stability of the individual markets.”

Oscar’s big marketing pitch is that it leverages technology to provide a more efficient healthcare experience, through such techniques as tele-medicine (25% of Oscar members have used it) and concierge teams that include both nurses and “care guides” (70% have used). It has taken steps to apply this tech-centric approach to the Medicare Advantage market, but tells Axios that it has slowed down those efforts a bit (i.e., no 2018 launch).

 

No, Trump Hasn’t ‘Essentially Repealed Obamacare’

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/12/20/trump-obamacare-mandate-repeal-taxes-216125

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Killing the mandate doesn’t gut the health care law. Most likely, it will muddle along, because the rest of it is broadly popular.

In July and again in September, Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But their newly passed tax legislation included a provision getting rid of Obamacare’s mandate requiring Americans to buy insurance, and President Donald Trump immediately declared victory in the partisan health care wars. “When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed,” he crowed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “We have essentially repealed Obamacare.”

Well, no. The individual mandate is only part of Obamacare. It wasn’t even included in the original health care plan that Barack Obama unveiled during the 2008 campaign. The mandate did become an important element of Obamacare, and the only specific element that a majority of the public opposed. But the more generous elements of the program—like a major expansion of Medicaid, significant government subsidies for private insurance premiums, and strict protections for pre-existing conditions—are still popular, and still the law of the land.

“The death of Obamacare has been exaggerated,” says Larry Levitt, who oversees health reform studies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Eliminating the mandate creates uncertainty, but all the benefits for people remain in place.”

The Republican ecstasy and Democratic gloom over the death of the mandate reflects the most consistent misperception over the seven-plus years of Affordable Care Act debates, the incorrect assumption that the “Obamacare exchanges,” where Americans can buy private insurance, are synonymous with Obamacare. The vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers shouldn’t be affected. Yes, killing the mandate could cause problems for the remaining 6 percent of Americans who have to buy insurance on the open market, but nearly half will remain eligible for subsidies that would insulate them from any premium hikes.

Repealing the tax penalties for Americans who don’t buy insurance would not repeal Obamacare’s perks for Americans who do—like the ban on annual and lifetime caps that insurers previously used to cut off coverage for their sickest customers, or the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans until they turn 26. And it would not repeal Obamacare’s “delivery reforms” that are quietly transforming the financial incentives in the medical system, gradually shifting reimbursements to reward the quality rather than quantity of care. The growth of U.S. health care costs has slowed dramatically since the launch of Obamacare, and the elimination of the mandate should not significantly affect that trend.

In fact, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate whose health plan did not include a mandate, because he was the only Democratic candidate who thought the main problem with health care was its cost. “It’s just too expensive,” he explained at an Iowa event in May 2007. Insurance premiums had almost doubled during the George W. Bush era, and Obama believed that was the reason so many Americans were uninsured. He doubted it would be worth the political heartburn to try to force people to buy insurance they couldn’t afford.

But Obama eventually embraced the argument that a mandate was necessary to ensure that young and healthy Americans bought insurance. The fear was that otherwise, insurance markets dominated by the old and sick (who would enjoy the law’s new protections for pre-existing conditions) would have produced even higher premiums, and might scare insurers away from serving Americans who don’t get coverage through their jobs or the government. Killing the mandate will be a step in that direction, boosting Trump’s heighten-the-contradictions effort to sabotage the functioning of Obamacare to build support for a more sweeping repeal.

That effort has already produced some damaging results for the exchanges. Insurers have increased their premiums for 2018, repeatedly citing uncertainty over Trump’s efforts to blow up Obamacare as well as his decision to cut off promised payments to insurers who cover lower-income families. Several insurers left the exchanges even before the elimination of the mandate, and others could follow.

But the widespread warnings that wide swaths of America would have no insurers on the exchanges were wrong; there are zero “bare counties” with no insurers for 2018. And a Kaiser review found the exchanges have gotten more profitable for insurers this year,despite Trump’s efforts to damage them. This year’s enrollment period appears to have gone fairly well even though the Trump administration shortened it by half and slashed its promotional budget.

The fear is that eliminating the mandate could produce a “death spiral” for the exchanges, where higher premiums scare away healthier customers, leading to even higher premiums and even sicker customers—until eventually,the insurers decide to bail. It could also encourage insurers to try to lure healthier customers with cheaper but skimpier plans that don’t provide protections for pre-existing conditions, since those customers would no longer have to pay a tax penalty.

But it is also possible that younger and healthier customers who initially bought insurance because they were required to do so will now buy insurance because they want to; surveys show that more than 75 five percent of Americans covered on the exchanges are happy with their coverage. And as a political matter, repealing the unpopular mandate could make it even harder for Republicans to pass legislation repealing insurance protections, Medicaid expansions and the rest of Obamacare, because the rest of Obamacare is popular. It’s not surprising that Republicans managed to kill the law’s vegetables, but it won’t be as easy to kill dessert.

Trump thinks congressional Democrats will soon be begging him to come up with a replacement for Obamacare, and even many Republicans who don’t embrace that fantasy believe the demise of the mandate will ratchet up pressure for a permanent solution to a seven-year political war. It could happen. But there hasn’t been a lot of bipartisanship in Washington lately, and after the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, it seems unlikely that a Senate with one fewer Republican will be more amenable to a Republican-only repeal bill.

The most likely outcome seems to be at least a few more years of Obamacare muddling through, and at least a few more years of Obamacare political warfare.

 

Actuaries warn of premium increases from repealing ObamaCare mandate

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/364514-actuaries-warn-of-premium-increases-from-repealing-obamacare-mandate

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A group of insurance experts is warning Congress against repealing ObamaCare’s individual mandate, saying the move would raise premiums and could cause insurers to drop out of the market.

The American Academy of Actuaries wrote to congressional leaders on Tuesday saying that “eliminating the individual mandate would lead to premium increases.”

The Republican tax-reform bill which is nearing completion in Congress would repeal the ObamaCare mandate that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Republicans argue the measure included in the Senate-passed bill is tax relief by removing a penalty for low-income people who choose not to buy insurance.

The actuaries warn that repealing the mandate would harm the health insurance market by removing an incentive for healthy people to enroll and balance out the costs of the sick.

The insurance experts also say that a measure pushed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), intended to help offset the premium increases from repealing the mandate, would not be enough to make up the difference.

That bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray(D-Wash.), would fund key ObamaCare payments known as cost-sharing reductions. The actuaries say the payments “would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate.”

The letter says additional measures — such as funding to bring down premiums known as “reinsurance,” which Collins has also proposed — could help, though. Some experts say more funding than is currently proposed would be needed.

The instability from repealing the mandate also could lead some insurers to drop out of markets altogether, the actuaries warn, potentially leaving some people with no insurance options.

“Insurers would likely reconsider their future participation in the market,” the actuaries write. “This could lead to severe market disruption and loss of coverage among individual market enrollees.”

 

 

Actuaries: Alexander-Murray won’t offset mandate repeal

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The American Academy of Actuaries is throwing some cold water on Republicans’ claims that they’ll offset the damage from repealing the ACA’s individual mandate by restoring funding for the law’s cost-sharing subsidies.

  • “While making cost-sharing reduction reimbursements to insurers … would offset premium increases due to the prior termination of those payments, it would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate,” the actuaries wrote in a letter yesterday.
  • This should not come as a surprise. This is hardly the first time nonpartisan experts have said the move to restore cost-sharing payments — a bill sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray — would not make up for the effects of repealing the mandate. They are separate things.

The big question: Does Collins believe this analysis, and does she care? Collins has made two ACA-related demands — a vote on Alexander-Murray, and a vote to establish a new reinsurance fund — in return for her vote to repeal the individual mandate.

  • Plenty of experts have said Alexander-Murray wouldn’t do much.
  • Reinsurance would.
  • But it’s not clear either proposal can pass the House. If one of them can, it’s probably Alexander-Murray.
  • That leaves a distinct possibility that insurance markets will not actually see the stabilizing effects Collins is bargaining for.

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Tax Bill Is Likely to Undo Health Insurance Mandate, Republicans Say

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House and Senate negotiators thrashing out differences over a major tax bill are likely to eliminate the insurance coverage mandate at the heart of the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers say.

But a deal struck by Senate Republican leaders and Senator Susan Collins of Maine to mitigate the effect of the repeal has been all but rejected by House Republicans, potentially jeopardizing Ms. Collins’s final yes vote.

“I don’t think the American people voted for bailing out big insurance,” said Representative Dave Brat, Republican of Virginia, who opposes a separate measure to lower insurance premiums that Ms. Collins thought she had secured.

The sweeping tax overhaul approved Saturday by the Senate would eliminate penalties for people who go without insurance, a change not in the tax bill passed last month by the House. But the House has voted many times to roll back the mandate, most recently in a bill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and House members were enthusiastic about going along.

“Mandating people to buy a product was a bad idea to begin with,” said Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia. “We made people do something that was supposed to be good for them. But they are telling us by the millions how much they dislike the mandate.”

The individual mandate was originally considered indispensable to the Affordable Care Act, a way to induce healthy people to buy insurance and thus to hold down insurance premiums for sicker customers. The Obama administration successfully defended the mandate in the Supreme Court. But recent economic research suggests that the effect of the mandate on coverage is somewhat smaller than previously thought.

With little more than a week remaining until the annual open enrollment period ends, 3.6 million people have selected health plans for 2018 in the 39 states that use the federal marketplace, the Trump administration reported Wednesday. That is 22 percent higher than at this point last year, despite uncertainty about the mandate’s future and efforts by Republicans and the administration to undermine the law.

But because the sign-up period is only half as long, it appears likely that enrollment will end up lower than in the last period.

Without a mandate, some healthy people are likely to go without coverage, leaving sicker people in the market, and prices are likely to rise more than they otherwise would. The Congressional Budget Office said last month that repealing the individual mandate would increase average premiums on the individual market about 10 percent, and it estimated that the number of people without health insurance would rise by 13 million.

Regardless, the requirement has proved to be one of the most unpopular parts of the 2010 law, and House Republicans were happy to see it go. Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina, called the Senate provision “a great move.”

The repeal also frees up money that Congress can use to reduce tax rates. The budget office said it would save the federal government more than $300 billion over 10 years — mainly because fewer people would have Medicaid or subsidized private insurance.

The mandate repeal’s effect on health insurance markets did concern Ms. Collins, and to win her vote for the Senate tax bill, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered her a deal, in writing: He would support two bipartisan bills to stabilize markets and hold down premiums, in the absence of the individual mandate.

One bill would provide money to continue paying subsidies to insurance companies in 2018 and 2019 to compensate them for reducing out-of-pocket costs for low-income people. President Trump cut off the “cost sharing” subsidies in October, more than a year after a federal judge ruled that the payments were unconstitutional because Congress had never explicitly provided money for them. The payments would resume under this measure, drafted by Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State.

The second bill would provide $5 billion a year for grants to states in 2018 and 2019. States could use the money to help pay the largest health claims, through a backstop known as reinsurance, or to establish high-risk pools to help cover sick people.

Ms. Collins has released a copy of her agreement with Mr. McConnell in which he pledged to support passage of the two measures before the end of the year. His signature was displayed prominently at the top of the first page. But the deal has landed with a thud in the House, where Republicans appear loath to support legislation that they view as propping up a health law that they have pledged to repeal.

“Our members wince at voting to sustain a system that none of them supported,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma.

The Senate could attach the Alexander-Murray legislation to a government funding measure, hoping that Republicans in the House would be willing to swallow it as part of a measure to avoid a government shutdown. But Mr. Cole said House Republicans would be “very offended” at such an approach.

“I don’t think we’re in the mood to be blackmailed by anybody,” he said.

Mr. Brat, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, assailed the deal with Ms. Collins as an example of horse trading that is characteristic of the Washington swamp that he said voters had repudiated.

Likewise, Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said of the Alexander-Murray bill, “There’s no appetite for that over here.”

Ms. Collins said on Wednesday that she believed the House would “take a serious look” at the two bills intended to hold down insurance premiums and that Mr. Trump, in several recent meetings, had assured her that he also supported those bills.

“I don’t think this effort is over by any means,” Ms. Collins said.

For Democrats, eliminating the insurance mandate penalties provides yet another reason to oppose the tax bill.

“The individual mandate is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina. “Repealing it, as the G.O.P. tax scam does, is a deliberate attempt to undercut the law, create chaos in the health insurance marketplaces, increase premiums and decrease choice and coverage.”

Ms. Murray indicated that even if Ms. Collins secures her deal, Democrats would remain steadfast.

“Our bill, the Alexander-Murray bill, was designed to shore up the existing health care system,” not to “solve the new problems in this awful Republican tax bill,” she said.

Meanwhile, the damage to the Affordable Care Act may already have been done. Daniel Bouton, an enrollment counselor in Dallas, said he worried that the Trump administration’s decision to cut advertising for open enrollment had prevented millions of people from learning about the shortened sign-up period. He also said that the Senate’s recent vote to undo the individual mandate as part of its tax bill would discourage people from signing up.

“You’re going to have people who say, ‘Well, perfect, I don’t have to buy insurance anymore,’” Mr. Bouton said.

 

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.”