What’s next? Schoolhouse Rock, funding inequity & making sure law is followed

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How a bill becomes law, School House Rock style.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Senate Republicans campaigned against “Obamacare” for seven years. Yet there was never an alternative that had support from a majority of their own party.

The problem is simple: Many (not all) Republicans see health care programs that help people — the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, etc. — as welfare. Others look at the evidence and see these programs that are effective: Insuring people, creating jobs, supporting a rural economy, and actually resulting in better health outcomes. Evidence-based success stories.

Of course Indian Country is squarely in the middle of this debate. Congress has never even considered, let alone acted, to fully fund Indian health programs. But the Affordable Care Act basically defined the Indian Health Service (and tribal, nonprofit, and urban operations) as health care delivery vehicles. And one way to pay for that delivery was by providing health insurance through an expanded Medicaid, no-cost insurance that tribal members could get through exchanges and employers. The ACA with all its faults sets out a plan to fully fund the Indian Health Service.

That’s the challenge now. Making sure that every American Indian and Alaska Native has insurance of some kind. Because of what happened (or, more accurately, what did not happen) in the Senate this week the money remains on autopilot. If you are eligible, the funding is there.

Yet the uninsured rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives remains high, as a Kaiser Family Foundation report noted a couple of months ago. “The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion provides an opportunity to enhance this role by increasing coverage among American Indians and Alaska Natives and providing additional revenue to IHS- and Tribally-operated facilities,” The Kaiser report said. “In states that do not expand Medicaid, American Indians and Alaska Natives will continue to face gaps in coverage and growing inequities.”

This is a problem that will grow because of congressional inaction. Nineteen states including Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Florida, and Maine, have rejected Medicaid expansion. So a tribal citizen in those states gets fewer dollars for healthcare than some Indian health patients in North Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, or any other state that took advantage of the expansion.

As Kaiser notes: “American Indians and Alaska Natives will continue to face gaps in coverage and growing inequities in states that do not expand Medicaid. In states that do not expand Medicaid, many poor adults remain without an affordable coverage option and will likely remain uninsured. Similarly, IHS providers in these states will not realize gains in Medicaid revenue.”

This is the what’s next? How does the country manage this divide, especially in Indian Country. (And, just as important, we also need to see the gap measured. What are the differences in treatment and outcome between Montana and Idaho or North Dakota and South Dakota? Data, please.) This is critical because under current law, third-party billing (including Medicaid) remains at the local service unit. There is now a funding inequity that needs to be addressed by state legislatures. Recently Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said he knows these states and they won’t expand Medicaid. (Back to the welfare, thinking.) I hope not.

The Trump administration recently made it easier for states to get a 100 percent reimbursement for Indian health patients (enticing South Dakota to reconsider joining the ranks of expansion states.)

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So it’s possible, and a challenge, to make sure that the law is implemented, and that innovation continues. The ACA gives much power to an administration to a state to change the rules. You will see a lot of that now. Indian Country needs to keep a sharp eye on that process and raise objections if the result is unsatisfactory.

So why did the Senate bill fail? Sure, full credit should go to the heroic stands by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. From the very beginning of the debate they were the party advocates for a Medicaid system that does produce better healthcare outcomes. And Alaska is a great example of that because nearly a quarter of the state’s population is served. This is how it should be across Indian Country and the nation.

And, of course, there was Sen. John McCain’s dramatic late night thumb’s down. The Arizona Republican was a no vote when it counted.

But that’s not why the bill failed. Fact is it’s remarkable that such nonsense got so far. It’s inconceivable that a plan was written at lunch the day before the vote. The bill failed because the Republicans, as a group, do not know where they want to lead the country on health care. They know they don’t want Obamacare (even though it’s based on conservative, market-based ideas). They sure as hell know they don’t want universal health insurance, either Single Payer such as Medicare for All or a government health service like Great Britain’s.

Yet when I listened to the debate yesterday so many of the complaints about insurance and costs could be solved by such a path. The problem here is that the United States made a huge mistake with employer-based insurance and that left out people who work for themselves or small businesses. The only way to fix that is a large pool of people spreading the costs, so that healthy people pay for sick people. The ACA tried to do that with mandates. Most countries accomplish that goal with universal insurance.

Another factor in the Republican plans — and another reason for the bill’s failure — is their absolute certainty in a market-based solution. Healthcare delivery and free markets do not play well together. The proof of that is simple: How much is an empty hospital bed worth to a business? Yet that should be the goal. And how much is it worth to a hospital-as-a-business to help a patient not need surgery? What market incentives are there for people to eat better?

Seven years ago, when I started writing a lot about health care, I did so because I saw the Indian Health Service as a fascinating example of government-run and managed healthcare. As we began this debate, I thought, let’s figure out what works and what needs work.

But I was way wrong. IHS is no longer only a government-run system. Much of the agency is now a funding mechanism for tribal, nonprofit, and urban operations). And that’s where so much of the innovation and excellence in Indian health exists. We need to more more about what’s working and why. Yet Congress (and the public narrative) continue to think of an IHS that no longer exists. At least entirely.

This might be a moment to focus on the latter part of what the agency does, improving the flow of funds, and adding more of our people to insurance rolls. Here’s the thing: We cannot do anything about universal health care. At least not yet. But we can have universal health care for Indian Country. It’s a huge task, but the ACA remains the law and it’s only a matter of execution (not a policy debate).

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Third-party collections now account for about $1.8 billion out of the IHS’ budget. The dollars Congress appropriates is $4.8 billion. The third-party portion can grow through more insurance coverage. The appropriations side will require hard fights in Congress and the outcome is uncertain.

Back to the Senate. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership, joked that perhaps it’s time for a new way of doing business. “I guess we ought to go back to Schoolhouse Rock,” he said. That’s been a clear message from both Republicans and Democrats throughout this messy project. Get a bill. Hold hearings. Let a committee debate alternatives. Then let the bill come to the floor. Regular order. Schoolhouse rock.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you hear the one about the Senator raising concerns about Indian health?

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Sen. John McCain votes yes on the Senate’s Motion to Proceed, then attacks the process, only to vote yes on the first bill that failed his test of regular order. Quite a day. (Photo via Senate video)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Senate is now going through 20 hours of debate on a House Resolution 1628 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the House bill was stripped of every word except the title. Now the idea is to come up with the right language to reach 50 votes (so when like the Motion to Proceed, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie and vote yes).

The first proposal, Senate Amendment 267, had all sorts of problems on the floor. The Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that parts of the bill did not get a score from the Congressional Budget Office and other parts violated budget rules. So 60 votes, not 50 were needed for this version to pass. But the Republican leadership wasn’t even close to 50 votes — Nine Republicans voted against it.

Including Arizona Sen. John McCain who just a few hours before said he wasn’t happy with any of the legislative proposals. Think about this. He interrupted his cancer treatment (taxpayer funded health care) then gave a stirring speech about the break down of civility in the Senate. He said he would vote against the bills as presented, and then, votes yes anyway. Quite a day.  And so much for his words. I’ll admit: I thought McCain meant what he said.

Then at least McCain earned respect and praise from President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: Thank you for coming to D.C. for such a vital vote. Congrats to all Rep. We can now deliver grt healthcare to all Americans!”

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Now that’s something — as is the process itself.

This week’s Senate debate on TV will be exciting. Seriously. There will be many hours ahead of members speaking to an empty chamber about why the Affordable Care Act works — or why it should be repealed. (And lots of images of staff shuffling papers on camera.) Great theater, right? Then every once in a while (about the time paint dries) there will be a call for a vote and the dramatic calling of each senator’s name for a vote.

There are two main versions that will surface soon. The first is a repeal — or at least as much of a repeal as possible with 50 votes — that’s been proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. That proposal has little chance.

Then later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will propose an amendment that they’re calling a “Skinny Repeal.” It would eliminate some taxes, a few more regulations, but leaves Medicaid alone. It’s supposed to be something for both moderates who want to leave Medicaid alone and for conservatives who want a repeal. Ha! And remember: If this version passes the Senate the bill will move to a conference committee with the House. That’s where the Medicaid cuts will come back. This is a phony negotiating plank.

As the debate unfolds, the Senate is in a way making the case for why we need Native Americans in the legislative process. There will be all kinds of talk about what the law does to Americans, to the poor, to taxpayers, to just about every constituent group in America. What’s really needed though is for one Republican senator to explain about the Indian Health system and what havoc all of these proposals would wreak. (Last week several Democrats did just that.) One majority party senator could say the Indian Health Service has never been fully funded, despite treaty promises, so why strip millions of dollars away? Or ask about Indian children when more than half are covered by Medicaid. Or show why Indian Country needs the jobs that have been created (and will be lost) by these proposals. Better yet: One Native Senator could use data to prove that Medicaid works.

Indian Country deserves to be in this debate. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a key opponent of the Republican leadership’s health care legislation. It’s mostly about Medicaid. I am sure that it’s also due to her support of the Alaska Native medical system. She gets it.

But Murkowski will pay a political price for her votes, at least in a primary election. But then she’s gone through that before. And won.  Not long after the Senate vote on the Motion to Proceed, the Alaska Republican Party said Murkowski abandoned them. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the “repeal of Obamacare is non-negotiable.” (Funny: I feel the same way about the Senate alternatives.)

And so the party talks about possible consequences for Murkowski. Babcock said her vote put at risk new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (would that be true) and said her Energy Committee “chairmanship could be at risk.”

And President Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: “Senator of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

So will there be punishment? I would not be so sure. Remember the Republican majority is thin. As I reported last week: Three senators switch sides and it’s a new Senate.  Two are already really, unhappy. So the way to make it three is for Republicans to continue to attack their own members.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com