GOP punts repeal of healthcare reform program to 2012

Long-term care advocates breathed a little easier Tuesday after House Republicans acknowledged they've run out of time to repeal the healthcare reform law's CLASS Act by the end of the year.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), the sponsor of the repeal bill, said he urged House leaders to include his repeal legislation in their payroll tax cut package, but to no avail. He said he'd soon introduce a market-based alternative to replace the program either this week or early next year.

"It was perfectly legitimate to put [repeal] in the [tax] package," Boustany said. But "realizing that the Speaker wants to do things through regular order, I'm respectful of that."

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In the few weeks since Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared the program unsustainable, House Republicans managed to push Boustany's repeal bill through the Energy and Commerce committee. 

House Republicans told The Hill that the repeal effort would resume in 2012 with a markup by the Ways and Means Committee.

"The Chairman intends to address CLASS Act repeal early in 2012," a Ways and Means spokeswoman told The Hill.

The White House opposes repeal, arguing that having the CLASS Act on the books could allow them to find a workable alternative. Congressional Democrats have also been united against repeal, with only a handful of conservative members — most of whom voted against the healthcare reform law — siding with the GOP.

But Republicans say they need to get rid of the program or risk seeing it rise from the dead. Sebelius's September statement gave them a window of opportunity to do so without having to find budget offsets because the Congressional Budget Office scores repeal as costing nothing as long as the program is on ice.

"It's not enough to give the administration a pass on this with their admission that the program is unsustainable," Boustany said. "Because of statutory deadlines in there, a federal court on behalf of those who would like to see CLASS go forward — despite the fact that it's unsustainable — could compel the secretary to implement this program. That's why we need to put a stop to this."

Part of leadership's calculation, Boustany said, was to keep the payroll tax package as simple as possible. One House Republican staffer said repeal of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act was briefly in the package before being removed.

Adding other items means "you then have to deal with negotiations in the Senate, and that gives [Democrats] more options to play games with us," he said. "By keeping things simple we ensure getting things done before Christmas Eve."

Quick action by the Ways and Means Committee could get the bill to the floor early next year, giving Republicans a chance to show they're still actively fighting to repeal the healthcare law ahead of the 2012 elections.

Boustany said the GOP needs to find alternatives, however, suggesting Republicans are wary of being cast as having no ideas of their own when it comes to tackling the nation's healthcare woes. Part of the impetus for the CLASS Act is that only about 8 million Americans have long-term care insurance to pay for nursing home care and similar services, which aren't covered by Medicare.

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Boustany said has draft replacement legislation in the works that he plans to introduce either this week or early in the next Congress. The legislation would "start us on the pathway of really getting some reforms in place that would improve prospects for people getting long-term-care insurance at an affordable rate," he said, by "creating incentives" in the private market.

A draft copy of his alternative bill, obtained by The Hill, would allow consumers to buy long-term care policies through tax-free employer cafeteria plans and flexible spending arrangements. It would also improve consumer protections and require more public-private coordination and accountability from HHS. 

"I feel very strongly that we should repeal CLASS," Boustany said, "but we need to put things in place or start something in motion to improve prospects for people to buy long-term-care insurance.

—This article was first posted at 11:21 a.m. and has been updated.