Senators zero in on deal to stabilize ObamaCare markets

Senators zero in on deal to stabilize ObamaCare markets
© Greg Nash

Just days after Republicans put their hopes of repealing ObamaCare on ice, leaders of the Senate Health Committee are getting closer to a bipartisan deal aimed at stabilizing the health-care law’s markets.

Republicans pulled the plug on those talks when it appeared their last-ditch ObamaCare repeal bill was gaining momentum, but senators, aides and lobbyists said the discussions are back on track and close to a resolution.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that he had spoken to the pair of top senators on the committee and “they both inform me that they're on the verge of an agreement, a bipartisan health care agreement to stabilize markets and lower premiums.”

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Senate approves motion to go to tax conference House conservatives, Ryan inch closer toward spending deal MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the panel, and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats turn on Al Franken VA slashes program that helps homeless veterans obtain housing: report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat, are negotiating the deal. Alexander and Murray met Wednesday night.

It’s far from clear that any deal Murray and Alexander work out could win approval from the full Senate, let alone pass the House.

Many other Senate Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah), are more skeptical of a deal to stabilize ObamaCare than Alexander is.

And the House and White House are another question entirely.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.) has told the Senate that an Alexander-Murray deal “isn't viable” for the House GOP.

As Republicans sought to win support for their repeal effort, some spoke dismissively of the Alexander-Murray talks, suggesting anything the senators agreed upon would go nowhere in the House.

Yet there is also pressure from business groups, insurers and consumers to make fixes to ObamaCare, and lobbyists and aides familiar with the talks also said a deal is close.

A Senate Democratic aide said talks are “coming along,” and having a deal this week “isn’t out of the question.”

Lobbyists said that elements of the deal being discussed include allowing ObamaCare enrollees to buy “copper plans,” which are cheaper, less generous insurance plans that currently only people under age 30 can buy.

An expansion of waivers currently in ObamaCare that allow states to innovate and change regulations are also said to be part of the potential deal, though it is not clear how far those waiver changes will go.

Those provisions are both Republican requests.

The main provision for Democrats would be funding for key ObamaCare payments known as cost-sharing reductions, which President Trump has threatened to cancel in a bid to make the health-care law “implode.”

Lobbyists say that two years of funding for the payments is possible under the deal, which would be more than Alexander’s initial offer of one year.

Alexander acknowledged these challenges in getting a final deal in speaking to reporters on Thursday.

“It’s not a matter of just whether Sen. Murray and I agree,” Alexander said. “It’s a matter of whether we can find a consensus among Republicans and Democrats that we believe can be enacted into a result. So, she and I might come to an agreement tonight but that wouldn’t do the job.”

Sources said that Thursday is too soon to expect a deal, despite Alexander’s hypothetical comment about “tonight.”

“We need to get a significant number of Democrats and a significant number of Republicans, hand it to Sen. McConnell and Schumer, and then we’ve got a matter of eventually persuading the entire Senate, the House of Representatives and the president, so we’re taking it a step at a time,” Alexander said.