Senators Reach Bipartisan Deal on Health Care

Alexander, Murray have an agreement on stabilizing insurance marketplaces

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray have a tentative deal on legislation to stabilize the insurance marketplaces. (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said he has reached an agreement with Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the panel’s ranking Democrat, on a limited deal to stabilize the individual health insurance markets.

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, briefed GOP senators on that deal during their weekly policy lunch Tuesday.

President Donald Trump said at an appearance at the White House on Tuesday that administration officials have been involved in the Alexander-Murray talks and signaled he supports what he described as a one- or two-year package.

He called it a “short-term deal” that is needed to “get us over this hump” until Republicans might find a way to send him a measure to partially or completely repeal the Obama-era law. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer spoke positively of the agreement, saying, “Two years of cost sharing provides real stability to the system and we want to make sure that happens.” 

Senate Republican leaders were noncommittal.

“It could get attached to some vehicle or it could move freestanding,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican. “I guess it depends on if there’s a bipartisan agreement and the Democrats and Republicans agree on a path forward.”

Over in the House, one leading Republican said it was a no-go. 

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote on Twitter, “The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it. This bailout is unacceptable.”

The plan would provide funding for the rest of this year, 2018 and 2019 for the cost-sharing reduction subsidies that insurers are required to help lower-income consumers pay under the 2010 health care law. It would give more flexibility to states seeking Section 1332 waivers, which allow states to bypass the health law’s rules under certain conditions.

That flexibility would make it easier for states to obtain the waivers and easier for federal officials to approve more types of waivers, Alexander said. The law’s requirements on health benefits and banning insurers from charging more for pre-existing conditions would not be touched, he said.

Instead, the proposal would allow for “comparable affordability,” Alexander said. In addition, individuals over age 30 would be eligible to purchase catastrophic plans offering basic coverage.

A Democratic aide said states would get flexibility by allowing them to meet budgetary requirements over the life of the waiver rather than on a yearly basis. Governors also would not have to get approval from state legislatures to pursue a waiver. Lawmakers and other aides did not immediately confirm those details.

The deal would also restore $106 million in outreach and enrollment funding for 2018 and 2019, which the administration slashed earlier this year, according to the Democratic aide. It would authorize funding for reinsurance, which pays for some of the most expensive patients, the aide said.

Though Trump signaled he appreciated Democrats’ efforts to strike that temporary deal, he repeated his talking points from this week about how he sees them as “obstructionists” who are “using every minute” under Senate rules to drag out consideration of his nominations for federal government and judicial posts they plan to allow through. 

The Senate schedule, though, is fairly sparse and leaders have used the nominations as a reliable way to occupy floor time throughout the year. 

 John T. Bennett, Sandhya Raman, Andrew Siddons and Misty Williams contributed to this report.

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