ObamaCare repeal fades from GOP priorities list in new year


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The chances of repealing ObamaCare this year are fading further, with top Republicans saying they hardly discussed repeal of the law during a Camp David retreat last weekend focused on their 2018 agenda.

Meanwhile, Republicans say talk of welfare or entitlement reform this year is also narrowing down to an emphasis on things like job training, not the broad overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements that Democrats have warned against.

While some conservative groups and select lawmakers are pushing for ObamaCare repeal in 2018, President Trump and GOP leaders have signaled a desire to move on, at least for now, after unsuccessful repeal efforts sucked up months of the legislative calendar in 2017. Trump also declared after signing the GOP tax overhaul in December, which did away with the mandate that most people buy health insurance or face a tax penalty, that Republicans had “essentially repealed ObamaCare.”“There’s some work we need to do on the health-care front, but I would hope we’re in a position to do things on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the GOP leaders who huddled with Trump at Camp David to discuss the 2018 agenda.

Asked if ObamaCare repeal was discussed in the meetings over the weekend, Cornyn — the Senate’s No. 2 Republican — replied flatly, “No.”

A source familiar with the conversations at Camp David confirmed that ObamaCare repeal was hardly discussed, except for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying that he did not want to do a partisan bill like ObamaCare repeal or entitlement reform through the fast-track process of reconciliation this year.

ObamaCare repeal has largely fallen off the GOP agenda for 2018, in part due to the realities of a narrower Senate majority than one that already failed to pass a repeal bill. Reopening the divisive issue in an election year would also be tough.

McConnell’s office pointed to his comments at a press conference at the end of December. The GOP leader said then that he wanted to focus on areas of bipartisan agreement in 2018.

When asked about trying to repeal ObamaCare again, McConnell responded that 51-49 is a “pretty tight majority” and noted that “the sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result.”

Democrats have also pointed to comments Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made late last year about reining in entitlement spending to warn that Republicans could try to cut Medicare and Medicaid in 2018.

But the source familiar with the Camp David meetings said any welfare or entitlement push this year would likely not be through the fast-track reconciliation process aimed at preventing a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Instead, the push would be narrower and focus on areas like job training that could potentially get bipartisan support, not Medicare or Medicaid changes.

“It was a little different than what I anticipated,” Cornyn said of the Camp David discussions on welfare reform. “In other words, it’s not Medicare, Social Security, entitlement reform; it is more, workforce training.”

Ryan outlined this emphasis in a press conference on Tuesday, where he made no mention of ObamaCare, Medicare or Medicaid in talking about an agenda for 2018.

Instead, Ryan said, “We’ve got more work to do to work on people, getting them the skills they need so they can get the careers that they want so they can get the lives that they deserve.”

Trump likewise pushed aside the idea of partisan welfare reform in a press conference at Camp David, which was dominated by the president lashing out at a new, critical book about his young administration.

“We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way, otherwise we’ll be holding it for a little bit later,” Trump said when asked about welfare reform.

It is still possible, though, that some Republican lawmakers could push to bring back ObamaCare repeal this year. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, pushed back against McConnell last month when McConnell suggested moving on from repealing the law.

“To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to Repeal and Replace Obamacare — you are sadly mistaken,” Graham said on Twitter last month.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, said on Tuesday that those comments still stand.

Conservative groups are also pressuring Republicans to try again on ObamaCare repeal this year. A range of leading groups, including Heritage Action, Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, wrote to Trump last week urging him to push for ObamaCare repeal this year.

The groups want the fast-track reconciliation process, which is needed to avoid Democrats blocking a bill with a filibuster, to be used for ObamaCare repeal. That is essentially the only way to give repeal a chance of passing.

However, it is in doubt whether the reconciliation process can even be used for anything this year. Using the process requires first adopting a budget, which would be hard for Republicans to agree on, especially in an election year.

With ObamaCare repeal out of focus for 2018, most of the law, including its Medicaid expansion and subsidies to help people buy coverage, remains in place.

Republicans have hailed their victory in repealing ObamaCare’s individual mandate as part of the tax bill, which takes out a central feature of the law and one of the most unpopular parts. Still, some experts have warned that removing the mandate will destabilize markets and cause premium increases.

It is possible that Congress could pass measures aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare in the coming weeks, though House conservatives are opposed to those bills.

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

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The year in health policy has already begun: The Trump administration Thursday released a long-awaited regulation aimed at making it easier for small businesses and others to form “association health plans.” Now advocates and opponents will be able to weigh in with more specific recommendations.

Meanwhile, in December, the health policy focus was on the tax bill and its repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” penalty for most people who don’t have health insurance. But some recent key court decisions could reshape the benefits millions of people receive as part of their health coverage.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post, Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

They discuss these topics, as well as the prospects for pending health legislation on Capitol Hill.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Trump administration’s decision to expand association health plans faces a number of obstacles, including the lack of good oversight in many states and the poor track record of many past plans.
  • Consumer advocates fear that growth of association plans could leave many consumers without adequate benefits because some plans will not cover the same essential benefits that Obamacare plans guarantee. They also are concerned that healthy customers will migrate to the new plans and leave the ACA’s marketplace plans with an abundance of enrollees who are ill.
  • The prospects of the bill to stabilize the individual insurance market sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appear to be dimming.
  • Two federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration rule to change the ACA’s contraception mandate. The decisions, though, are not based on the policy but on faulty rule-making.
  • In another highly watched court case, a federal judge has ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has until 2019 to set new rules on what employers can require of workers in their wellness programs.

Push for return to ACA repeal


Affordable Care Act highlighted

While lawmakers’ most pressing priority right now is to prevent a government shutdown, it’s not too early to start asking: Is the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act over?

The answer to that question, however, depends upon which Republican you ask.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that while he wants to unwind more of the healthcare law, he’s doubtful that Republicans will have enough votes to do so now that their majority has gotten even slimmer.

But others on the right are pushing to keep the repeal effort alive. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Tuesday that one of the GOP’s major goals this year is to tackle welfare reform, but “then we’re going to have to work on healthcare again.”

“Look, I’m for repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he said during an interview with Fox & Friends, later adding, “So let’s get back to work on some of those things—like what we passed in the House, that almost passed in the Senate—so that we can get our healthcare system working again [and] rebuild the private marketplace.”

The GOP is also facing external pressure. A collection of conservative groups known as the “Repeal Coalition” sent a letter Tuesday to President Donald Trump, saying that now that he’s reformed the tax code, he now must “deliver on the rest of the promises made to the American people to free them from the shackles of Obamacare.”

Thus, the letter said, healthcare reform must be the focus of lawmakers’ budget reconciliation instructions for 2019. The Trump administration must also help the Senate and the House “design a bill that can muster the votes needed for passage of true health reform,” it added.

Whichever path that Republicans choose to take regarding the ACA this year, however, they will do so without a veteran senator who has played a major role in healthcare policymaking. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he will not run for an eighth term.

Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has opposed the ACA and criticized a bill drafted by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that was designed to stabilize the law. In fact, he floated an alternative to the Alexander-Murray bill that would both temporarily fund cost-sharing reduction payments and ax the individual and employer mandates. Ultimately, he helped repeal the individual mandate via the GOP’s tax reform package.

Hatch also has a history of bipartisanship, however. He was often forced to work with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy when they led what is now known as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. One of their biggest achievements was creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program—though that program is now on shaky ground since Congress let federal funding for it lapse last fall and has since failed to reauthorize it.



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


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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.


Top 10 health care surprises of 2017


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President Donald Trump stormed into office last January confident that he could knock off Obamacare in a nanosecond. It didn’t turn out that way — and from drug prices to the Tom Price travel scandal, a lot of health policy didn’t go according to plan. Here’s a look at 10 health care surprises from 2017.

1. Obamacare survives its seventh year

In control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans had their best shot ever at Obamacare repeal — and even thought they could have it on Trump’s desk on Inauguration Day. The grand ambitions quickly met roadblocks. Members rebelled over policy details, GOP leaders struggled to find consensus, moderates mutinied, and virtually the entire health care industry — along with Democrats and Obamacare advocates — lined up against every plan that Republicans put forward.

Even so, the GOP eventually squeaked a bill through the House and after several false starts put a proposal on the Senate floor. That’s when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered perhaps the biggest stunner of the year: a late-night thumbs-down that sunk the Senate bill and effectively ended the GOP’s repeal effort … until 2018.

Still, Senate Republicans concede that with an even narrower vote margin, dismantling Obamacare may become, as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) delicately put it, “a little more difficult.”

2. Price jets away from HHS

After years of railing against Obamacare as a member of Congress, Tom Price finally got a chance to do something about it as Health and Human Services secretary. The former orthopedic surgeon would aid Republicans’ effort to repeal the law while simultaneously unraveling Obamacare’s web of regulations. He fell short on both counts. Price all but disappeared during the Senate’s bid to craft a repeal bill, frustrating Republicans and, more importantly, the president. Soon after, POLITICO revealed that he had routinely traveled by chartered private or military aircraft, costing taxpayers $1 million.

The scrutiny over his travel habits, combined with Trump’s irritation on Affordable Care Act repeal, sped Price’s resignation seven months into the job. He left few tangible accomplishments — other than the distinction of being the first Cabinet member to make his exit.

3. Tough talk and no action on drug prices

Trump lobbed insults at a host of health care targets, but perhaps none landed with more rhetorical force than his denunciations of the “disastrous” drug industry.

“The drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder,” he seethed early on, suggesting he might empower Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

It didn’t happen. For all of Trump’s tough talk, he’s made no concrete moves toward cracking down on pharmaceutical prices. A promised executive order never materialized — and a leaked draft of the directive appeared largely pharma-friendly anyway.

In November, Trump nominated Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, to serve as his next HHS secretary. Azar has already rejected sweeping changes to rein in drug prices, like allowing drug reimportation or giving Medicare greater negotiating power. The administration’s agenda on drug prices now looks smaller, more traditional, and far less of a threat to the pharmaceutical industry.

4. GOP kills the individual mandate — in a tax bill

For all their failures on repealing and replacing Obamacare, Republicans did land a major blow — it just took a tax bill to get the job done. The GOP’s sweeping tax overhaul zeroes out the penalty levied on most people for not purchasing insurance starting in 2019, effectively gutting Obamacare’s individual mandate.

Republicans had long made the mandate a top target for repeal. But it’s also a pillar of the health law — the mechanism that Obamacare supporters contend is crucial to keeping enough healthy people in the market to stabilize premiums.

Yet, in a twist, Senate Republicans who months earlier proved too skittish to dismantle Obamacare jumped at the chance to eliminate the mandate, despite Congressional Budget Office projections that it would drive up premiums 10 percent and leave 13 million more people uninsured over the next decade.

With just 12 days left in a year they’d vowed was Obamacare’s last, Republicans passed their tax bill — and in the process, made their only major legislative change to the health law.

5. Planned Parenthood’s funding goes untouched

The GOP’s sweep into power also placed Republicans on the verge of accomplishing a second top health care goal: defunding Planned Parenthood. Once again, Republicans found themselves foiled by their own members. Moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) used their leverage as Senate swing votes to protect the funding of an organization they ardently support.

When McCain joined them in voting down repeal in July, it also put the defunding efforts on hold indefinitely. And now facing only a two-vote advantage in the Senate in 2018, it’s unclear whether the GOP can find the political will to take federal action against Planned Parenthood.

6. The vaccine controversy that never was

When high-profile vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. traveled to New York in January to meet with Trump, it looked like the start of a controversial plan to boost the scientifically disproved theory that vaccines can cause autism. Trump had previously suggested vaccines could be dangerous, and Kennedy emerged from Trump Tower touting plans to chair “a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity” at the president-elect’s behest.

“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and has questions about it,” Kennedy said.

But Trump’s team never confirmed Kennedy’s assertions, and after Inauguration Day any momentum for a vaccine commission appeared to fizzle out. The chiefs of the administration’s Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health all advocate for vaccines, and there hasn’t been a peep from the White House so far about taking any close look at vaccine safety beyond the normal regulatory oversight.

7. Single payer gets serious

At this time last year, single-payer health care was a progressive pipe dream. Now it’s a rallying point for liberal Democrats, a possible litmus test for 2020 hopefuls and a serious policy proposal that’s won the backing of nearly a third of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ universal health care plan vaulted into the mainstream in September, after high-profile Democrats trying to strike a contrast to the GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts latched onto the goal of universal coverage.

“Quality health care shouldn’t be the providence of people’s wealth. It should be a virtue of us being United States citizens,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of several likely 2020 candidates backing the plan, said at the time.

The single-payer push exposed divisions over how exactly to achieve universal coverage, and several Democrats have put forth their own ideas on how to move more gradually. But the shift in the Democratic platform is clear: Three years after Sanders (I-Vt.) failed to win a single co-sponsor for his plan, universal health care is becoming a defining issue for Democrats in the run-up to 2020.

8. Medicaid as a wedge issue

In a year that was supposed to be all about Obamacare, Congress spent much of its time on Medicaid. The GOP’s Obamacare repeal bills all targeted the low-income health insurance program as well. Their proposals would have profoundly changed the nature of Medicaid — not just the expansion that was part of Obamacare but the traditional parts that predated the ACA by decades.

That’s where the GOP’s health care effort hit perhaps its most intense resistance, as Medicaid — traditionally overshadowed by Medicare — suddenly became a third rail. Democrats seized on projections that capping federal funding would drive deep coverage losses and leave the nation’s most vulnerable worse off. State governors on both sides of the aisle warned that the changes would cripple their ability to deliver crucial services. Swing vote Republicans balked at deep cuts at a time when Medicaid offered the first line of defense against the growing opioid epidemic.

That hasn’t stopped the GOP from taking on Medicaid in other ways. The Trump administration is encouraging states to impose work requirements and has made entitlement and welfare reform — both of which could involve Medicaid — a priority for 2018.

9. Shkreli goes to jail over Hillary’s hair

That Martin Shkreli will finish off this year from prison isn’t a surprise — but it’s what put him there that was unexpected.

The former Turing Pharmaceutical CEO, who gained notoriety for hiking the price of an AIDS drug, was convicted of securities fraud in August. But he was living freely while awaiting sentencing until he offered $5,000 on Facebook for a strand of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s hair. The post qualified as a “solicitation of assault,” a judge ruled, before revoking Shkreli’s bond and sending him to prison.

It’s just one of many strange twists in Shkreli’s saga, which included calling congressmen “imbeciles” on Twitter hours after refusing to answer questions at a House committee hearing; livestreaming on YouTube for hours on end, including right after his conviction; and purchasing the sole copy of a 2015 Wu-Tang Clan album for more than $1 million. He’ll now serve jail time over his request for Clinton’s hair until a mid-January sentencing hearing.

10. Collins, Murkowski play power brokers in the Senate

The most moderate members in a Republican Conference that narrowly controls the Senate, Collins and Murkowski were always going to be crucial players. But GOP leaders may not have anticipated just how much they’d flex that power.

Collins and Murkowski held out throughout the repeal effort over Medicaid cuts and skimpier subsidies they worried would hurt their states — and tanked a top GOP priority. At the end of the day, both voted for the big tax bill, with its individual mandate repeal. Collins got a promise from Senate leaders that two ACA stabilization bills would be included in Congress’ year-end spending agreement — though the bill have been pushed into 2018 and are in trouble, given the House opposition.

With Republicans’ margin in the Senate set to narrow to just 51-49 next year, Collins and Murkowski appear set to exercise even more influence over the party’s direction come 2018.


Five key decisions for the GOP on healthcare


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Republicans have repealed ObamaCare’s individual mandate, but they still have a number of decisions to make on health care in the coming year.

Even without the unpopular mandate, the health care law is still largely in effect, with nearly 9 million people enrolled in private plans for 2018.

And beyond ObamaCare, Republicans could seek action on entitlement reform and drug pricing in 2018.

Here are five things to watch out for.

Will Republicans try again to repeal ObamaCare? 

After Republicans failed to act on a seven-year promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare, they assured voters they would return to the issue after passing tax reform.

But now that the tax law is on the books, it’s far from certain that Republicans will make another run at the Affordable Care Act. With the GOP’s Senate majority set to shrink in January, repeal might be off the table for now.

“Well, we obviously were unable to completely repeal and replace with a 52-48 Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR on Thursday.

“We’ll have to take a look at what that looks like with a 51-49 Senate. But I think we’ll probably move on to other issues.”

But McConnell could face pressure from more conservative Senate Republicans — and possibly from the House — to revisit health care, no matter how steep the challenge.

“To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to Repeal and Replace Obamacare — well you are sadly mistaken,” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), author of the most recent repeal bill, tweeted last week.

Will Congress act to stabilize ObamaCare? 

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have been pushing for a vote on two bipartisan bills to stabilize ObamaCare’s insurance markets, but those efforts were pushed off until next year.

McConnell assured Collins the bills would be attached to a “must-pass” bill by the end of 2017, but that changed as Republicans scrambled to avoid a government shutdown.

Now Senate Republicans are looking to attach the ObamaCare bills to the long-term spending bill that is expected to come up for a vote in January.

But passing the ObamaCare bills is far from certain, with House Republicans demanding the inclusion of Hyde Amendment language to prevent any federal money from going to plans that cover abortions.

House Republicans have also been critical of the overall substance of the bills, arguing they’re a “bail out” of a failing law.

It’s unclear whether House Republicans would support a spending bill that contains the ObamaCare bills, but many have said they definitely won’t if the abortion language isn’t included.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.C.) said Senate Republicans are looking at ways to resolve the issue, and Alexander said he’s optimistic about the bills passing in January.

“We have the president’s renewed interest, more interest from the House, Senate McConnell has renewed his commitment to schedule it and support it, so I think it’s just a matter of when we come back, putting out ideas together and finding a way to get it done,” Alexander told reporters.

Will Republicans try to tackle entitlements?

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said Republicans should move to entitlement reform next year, citing the need to address the nation’s red ink.

“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan told the Ross Kaminsky radio talk show earlier this month.

While there’s broad support in the GOP for taking up welfare reform, changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security could be a tough sell.

McConnell has noted that a slim Republican majority in the Senate could put broader entitlement reform out of reach.

“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” McConnell said at a press conference Friday.

“The only time we’ve been able to do that is on a bipartisan basis, and it was a long time ago.”

Entitlement cuts could also be politically dangerous for Republicans leading into the 2018 midterms.

Will Trump try to help ObamaCare? 

Democrats have accused the Trump administration of trying to sabotage ObamaCare by slashing the law’s advertising and outreach budget and cutting open enrollment in half.

But those actions seemed to have a minimal effect on enrollment. The administration said 8.8 million people signed up for coverage in the exchanges this year, which is only a slight drop from the 9.2 million people who signed up last year.

Democrats say these numbers show the resiliency of the law.

“[The] enrollment numbers make clear that the American people want access to high quality, affordable health insurance coverage, and they want Congress and the Administration to stop playing games with our health care system,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Trump indicated on Tuesday that his administration still intends on repealing and replacing ObamaCare, however.

“Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals (over time) ObamaCare, the Democrats & Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great new HealthCare plan!”

Will Trump take action on drug prices? 

Trump came out swinging against drug companies when he took office in January, declaring that the industry is getting away with murder, but so far has taken little action on drug prices.

The administration has been preparing an executive order aimed at lowering drug prices since the summer, but critics argue the order would be friendly to drug companies.

Trump has also abandoned campaign promises to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and expand importation of cheaper drugs from other countries.

However, Alex Azar, a former drug executive and Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, has said that addressing h drug prices will be one of his top priorities if he’s confirmed.

“I believe I can hit the ground running to work with you and others to identify solutions here,” Azar told senators during his confirmation hearing.


Health insurer Oscar nears $1 billion in revenue


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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).