- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

President Trump threw his support Tuesday behind a short-term Obamacare fix that would restart payments to insurance companies, saying it was a way to buy time while Republicans work toward a broad repeal that he insisted they will eventually find the votes to pass.

Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, struck the agreement with Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, to fund pivotal “cost-sharing” payments for two years, a win for Democrats and skittish Republicans who said states were forced to approve higher premiums after Mr. Trump failed to guarantee the money.

The bill will also give states added flexibility under Obamacare’s rules — though Mr. Alexander said it does not free them from the onerous coverage requirements that have sent premiums soaring and chased some Americans from the health care market altogether.

Mr. Trump said the package will help the markets get beyond the uncertainty, though he still wants Republicans to again try to scrap the Affordable Care Act next year.

“It’ll get us over this intermediate hump,” he said at the White House. “For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution.”

He also refused to take blame for rate hikes next year, tweeting that Democrats were to blame for passing a health care program that “never had a chance of working.”

Under the deal, states would be able to use Obamacare’s existing waiver system to offer new plan choices so long as they offer “comparable affordability” as those under the 2010 law. But they cannot chip away at the slate of “essential” benefits and services that insurers are required to cover.

Democrats fought to preserve those coverage requirements, saying insurers would offer junk insurance without them.

States could allow anyone, instead of just those younger than 30, to buy catastrophic-level “copper plans.” It was a nod to Republicans who wanted to provide healthy customers with more affordable options.

The plan halves the period that federal officials can take to review a state waiver, known as a “1332,” to tweak Obamacare, and governors would not need their state legislatures to approve their plans first. They could swiftly secure “me too” waivers for changes to Obamacare that other states already received.

The proposal also takes $106 million from existing user fees and sends it as block grants to the states, who can use it to promote insurance offerings however they like.

Negotiators said they have agreed on those principles and will now draft a bill and share it with colleagues.

They also will need to figure out ways to make sure insurers, some of which already raised rates to make up for an expected loss of cost-sharing payments, are not effectively paid twice in 2018.

“We’re going to round up co-sponsors as best we can,” Mr. Alexander said.

That may be tough since conservatives don’t want to be viewed as propping up Obamacare after failing to fulfill promises of swift repeal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican reacted cautiously. He said Republican leaders “haven’t had a chance to think about the way forward yet.”

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina was more blunt, dubbing the plan an unacceptable “bailout” for Obamacare insurers.

“The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it,” said Mr. Walker, who leads a bloc of about 170 House Republicans.

Democrats, though, praised the emerging bill as a win for bipartisanship after Mr. Trump, frustrated with Republicans who didn’t back repeal, started to chip away at the law on his own.

“I hope the House will take it up and the president would sign it,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

The cost-sharing payments are the most critical piece of the deal, after Mr. Trump pulled the plug on money last week.

He said he could not legally make the payments after a federal court last year ruled them illegal because Congress never approved the money. President Obama continued to make the payments while the decision was being appealed.

Pennsylvania on Monday said premiums in its individual market would increase by an average of 30 percent, instead of 7.6 percent as originally projected, because the payments won’t be made, fueling Democratic claims of “sabotage” against the White House.

Tuesday’s deal is the product of weeks of bipartisan talks and four public hearings, a stark contrast to the secretive process that led to failed attempts at repealing Obamacare.

Mr. Trump said he still believes the block-grant plan provides the best path to reform. “I think we have the votes,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference. “We are very close.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican and key architect of the block-grant proposal, credited Mr. Trump with setting the table for congressional action in the short term while clearing the way for work on his long-term replacement.

“President Trump asked Congress to fix it in the short term. I agree. If combined with greater flexibility to allow states to lower costs, this will set the stage for replace through a mechanism such as Graham-Cassidy. I will study this proposal to see if it accomplishes these goals,” Mr. Cassidy said.

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