- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2017

Congressional Republicans are pressuring President Trump to guarantee critical Obamacare payments for at least the next year, fearing the GOP will otherwise be blamed for kneecapping the health law as they prepare to face voters in 2018.

But the pressure is undercutting Mr. Trump’s negotiating stance. He’d hoped to dangle the payments as a carrot to entice Democrats to negotiate on bigger Obamacare changes.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said the GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts likely wouldn’t phase in until 2020 anyway, meaning the basics of the Affordable Care Act will govern operations for the next few years.

He asked Health and Human Services Secretary Thomas Price on Thursday to commit to making the “cost-sharing reductions” for insurers who pick up low-income customers’ costs through 2018.

“And we should probably go ahead and do it through 2019,” he told Mr. Price at a budget hearing.

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, recently made a similar request of Mr. Price.

Mr. Trump has refused to say whether he will continue to pay the money, saying it gives him leverage over Democrats who’ve resisted his plan to replace Obamacare.

But the uncertainty is already affecting some insurers, who blamed massive premium hikes next year on not knowing how much they can expect back from the federal government in cost-sharing payments.

Those pushing for the money to keep flowing say it’s just for now.

“I believe Republicans will need to do some things, temporarily, that we don’t want to do in the long term,” Mr. Alexander said.

Mr. Price ducked Mr. Alexander’s call, saying he can’t comment because of an ongoing court case. He said, however, that Mr. Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget assumed the payments would be made.

In that court case, a federal judge ruled that President Barack Obama broke the law by doling out the payments despite Congress refusing to appropriate the money.

Mr. Trump could stop making the payments at any time, but he’s letting the money flow for now. Still, he’s keeping insurers guessing about the future, even as they face critical deadlines for deciding whether to offer plans under Obamacare next year.

Insurers are required to cover customers’ costs whether they’re reimbursed or not, further complicating the economics of Obamacare.

A series of insurers has decided to pull out of Midwest markets, potentially leaving dozens of counties in Ohio, Missouri and Iowa with only one option — or, in some cases, none at all — on Obamacare exchanges.

Mr. Alexander said Obamacare’s fragile economics are the key culprit.

Democrats, though, said the Trump administration is sabotaging the law.

“You’re going to be held accountable,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.

Ms. Murray and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, have asked the HHS inspector general to probe whether Mr. Trump’s wavering commitments to Obamacare are to blame for the health market troubles.

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