And just like that … it’s back to square one for healthcare, budgets and taxes

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Trahant Reports

So the Senate (and therefore the House) plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, destroy Medicaid as we know it, and shell out billions in tax cuts for the wealthy is no more. Monday night Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said they would vote against even debating the Senate healthcare bill. So it was defeated by unanimous opposition of Democrats, the Senate’s most conservative members, and Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins who opposed the Medicaid cuts.

“Regretfully, it is now apparent that the effort to repeal and immediately replace the failure of Obamacare will not be successful,” McConnell said. “So, in the coming days, the Senate will vote to take up the House bill with the first amendment in order being what a majority of the Senate has already supported in 2015 and that was vetoed by then-President Obama: a repeal of Obamacare with a two-year delay to provide for a stable transition period to a patient-centered health care system that gives Americans access to quality, affordable care.”

So plan B, supported by President Donald J. Trump, is a repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a plan to figure out what a replacement looks like. Trump tweeted: “If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!”

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But that will not be easy either. The idea of a repeal without a plan is crazy when you’re talking about such a huge chunk of the economy. And many Republican senators have already said so. As I have been writing (often) the problem is that the Republicans do not have a governing majority.  They are split. Hopelessly. They really needed their healthcare bill (something they all campaigned on) as a glue to keep their coalition together. Now it gets tougher.

There are practical problems with a “just repeal” approach too. The Senate language has to be narrowly drafted on fiscal issues in order to meet the test of a budget reconciliation bill. This process is arcane but it eliminates any filibuster by Democrats. It also means there will be no outright repeal (which would require 60 votes to stop the filibuster) just the budget applications of the Affordable Care Act. Complicated, right? The budget the Senate is working off of requires a billion dollars in savings from any repeal.

Even this will be tricky. First there will need to be consensus for a new vote to bring up the House bill. (It’s called a Motion to Proceed.) That measure would be open to amendments, including the repeal provision. (The president must have just been informed about this problem. He tweeted: “The Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes. Even parts of full Repeal need 60. 8 Dems control Senate. Crazy!”

That’s just one of the crazy, sticky issues for a repeal amendment (not to mention any other amendment that surfaces). Language that would lift the individual mandate to purchase insurance could also eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions — and doing that would make health insurance unworkable for the companies. This could cause widespread market panic.

Depending on how it’s written, an outright repeal could impact Indian Country because it could include the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The Senate and House plans were careful to sidestep that issue. This is a blank slate. A political danger zone.

However the Senate’s political implosion also shows how difficult it will be for the House and Senate to pass a budget, lift the debt ceiling, and get on with other important work.

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The House released its budget plan Tuesday morning and it sets its course for using the reconciliation process too. (In theory: Life is so much easier if you don’t need votes from Democrats.) That budget bill will be marked up on Wednesday and it will be tough to win a majority of Republicans. It has every controversial Trump project included, money for a border wall, cuts to social welfare programs, including Medicare. Some Members don’t like the increases in military spending coupled with sharp budget cuts for domestic programs, more than $200 billion worth. (It will be up to committees to figure out where the cuts would happen.) Other Members think there ought to be more cuts. And to make this process even more complicated, the House budget includes tax provisions. That only makes the task ahead more difficult.

Buckle your seat belts. — Mark Trahant

 

 

 

 

 

Senate Republicans will have to wait for John McCain to return after surgery

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When every senator could be the 50th vote, any one absence means no healthcare bill

Trahant Reports

The Senate healthcare bill looked like it was going to pass on Friday. There were only two public no votes (when three are needed to defeat the measure.) And you can only imagine how much pressure leadership was putting on its members to vote yes for the good of the party. This bill was (and is) a priority for the Republican leadership and the White House.

But over the weekend things changed. Sen. John McCain’s office announced that the senator had surgery for a blot clot over his eye. “Senator McCain received excellent treatment at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, and appreciates the tremendous professionalism and care by its doctors and staff. He is in good spirits and recovering comfortably at home with his family. On the advice of his doctors, Senator McCain will be recovering in Arizona next week.”

Now the Senate cannot vote on the healthcare bill. There is no way to get to 50 votes without him. So Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will wait until McCain heals. At least a week.

That means there is a lot more time for the opposition to make its case. On Monday or Tuesday there will be a new Congressional Budget Office score of the bill. And that could be followed by some kind of alternative review from a federal agency. Think fake news but in a government document.

Another Not So Good for the Senate Bill moment was a letter from health insurance companies that said the Cruz amendment is unworkable in any form. The problem is that healthy people will buy cheaper plans leaving those who are already sick to buy the ones preserved from the Affordable Care Act.

State governors also remain opposed to the Senate bill. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to change their minds. He spoke as a former governor who accepted Medicaid Expansion, but now says the Senate bill is all about freedom to redesign health insurance. “And if you take nothing else from what I say today, know that the Senate healthcare bill gives states the freedom to redesign your health insurance markets.  And, most significantly, under this legislation, states across the country will have an unprecedented level of flexibility to reform Medicaid and bring better coverage, better care, and better outcomes to the most vulnerable in your states.”  He argues that the Medicaid reforms will secure “Medicaid for the neediest in our society.  And this bill puts this vital America program on a path to long-term sustainability.”

But, as I said, the governors didn’t see the issue the same way. Democrat and Republican sees the numbers and now that the Senate bill will result in substantial budget cuts lasting more than a generation. (In fact: One of twisted messages from McConnell to moderate Republicans is don’t worry. The cuts down the road will never happen.) This bill would destroy the Medicaid that we have now. Including the money that helps fund the Indian Health system.

Looking for background? Here are recent pieces on the Senate health care bill and its impact on Indian Country: The special deal for Alaska; Lies we’re being told about budget cuts; The impact on jobs in Indian Country; Trump tells tribal leaders Medicaid cuts will be good; and health care policy is a debate worth having (but this is not that.)

 

 

 

 

Alaska’s special deal in Senate health bill isn’t enough to fund successful Medicaid

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Alaska’s Health and Human Services Commissioner Valerie “Nurr’araaluk” Davidson. A report by her agency says Medicaid now covers one in four people in Alaska; nearly half of whom are children. If Medicaid caps are enacted, the “magnitude of the federal cuts are such that they may well affect Alaska’s ability to finance other state priorities such as education and infrastructure.”

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It would be cool, just this once, if the Senate would say, “Indian Country you are so important. So we are adding a special provision to this health care bill that adds big bucks to the Indian Health Service.” Then Senators with significant American Indian or Alaska Native populations would shift their votes from perhaps to yes.

That might sound like a fantasy. But it’s the track that the Alaska delegation is on; senators secured a special deal in the Senate health care plan for their state. Only it’s not about Alaska Natives. And it’s not nearly the same amount of dollars that the state will lose with Medicaid cuts (or, for that matter, in high cost insurance.) But it’s a “victory” of sorts that will be claimed if Sen. Lisa Murkowski eventually votes yes on the Senate bill. (Sen. Dan Sullivan was a likely yes, anyway, although he’s claiming credit too.)

Here’s the deal. The legislation includes a complicated formula to reduce Medicaid spending — except in states with a population density of less than 15 people per square mile. That’s Alaska, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and Montana. New Mexico just misses but then it’s a Blue state and its senators would likely vote no anyway. And, the exception might be of use to Sen. John Hoeven from North Dakota but, like Sullivan, he probably would vote with leadership anyway.

So really it’s about Alaska — and Murkowski’s vote. She’s a firm maybe. So far three senators have said no (enough to kill the bill) but we won’t know how solid those no votes are until there’s an actual vote. The self-proclaimed no votes are Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona. (Republicans need 50 votes from their own party.)

The rural exception to the Senate bill adds up to just under $2 billion, according to The New York Times.

But special deal or not, the big picture might be more important to Murkowski.

Alaska is a state where the evidence is strong that the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion are working. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population is enrolled in Medicaid and the state’s 2015 expansion added more than 34,739 people. Half of the state’s children are insured by Medicaid.

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And, of course, Medicaid is an essential revenue source for the Alaska Native medical system — a system that Murkowski praised just this week at a hearing on the Indian Health Service.

A study done for Alaska’s Department of Health and Human Services — run by Commissioner Valerie “Nurr’araaluk” Davidson — is blunt. It says: To stay under a per capita cap Alaska would be required to cut its Medicaid program spending by $929 million in federal and State dollars between FY 2020 and 2026, with a federal funds loss of $473 million … The magnitude of the federal cuts are such that they may well affect Alaska’s ability to finance other State priorities such as education and infrastructure.”

The report says the cap will not include patients in the Indian Health system, but that Alaska will have to cut back on eligibility to reduce Medicaid spending.

Analysis of the House plan (remember at some point the House and Senate bills would have to be merged and passed again) would cost Alaska $2.8 billion in Medicaid funds between 2020 and 2026.

What’s even more problematic: “Alaska will have to establish its Medicaid budget almost two years before it knows the amount of federal Medicaid funding available for that budget year.” That could result in a “claw back” effect where money has to be returned to the federal treasury after its already spent. The impact of the Senate bill would be quick. The state’s report estimates that within three years a quarter of all Medicaid funding would be eliminated. And, more important, by 2022 95% of expansion enrollees will have lost coverage due to Alaska’s highly seasonal workforce.”

So will the rural exception be enough to buy votes? It’s certainly not enough funding to maintain Alaska’s successful Medicaid Expansion.

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