Five health-care fights facing Congress in December

Five health-care fights facing Congress in December
© Greg Nash

Health-care issues are at the top of Congress’s hefty December to-do list.

Republicans spent much of the year on a failed bid to repeal and replace ObamaCare. That’s left several programs and taxes hanging in the balance as the year draws to a close, in addition to the latest health-care drama thrust into the GOP tax-reform debate.

Here are five of the biggest health-care issues Congress will face next month.

Will Republicans repeal the individual mandate?

Weeks ago, Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (R-Ark.) began to push for a repeal of the individual mandate to be added into the GOP tax overhaul. It worked, at least in the upper chamber.

To Democrats' dismay, the Senate Finance Committee passed a tax-reform bill before breaking for Thanksgiving that included repeal of the ObamaCare mandate that Americans without health insurance pay a fee.

The House already passed a bill out of its chamber on a party-line vote — legislation that didn’t include repealing the individual mandate. But leaders have said they’re open to it if the Senate is able to muster enough votes to pass tax reform with the repeal.

It appears that the upper chamber might be able to pull it off.  

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight 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 Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE (R-Maine) has said the repeal shouldn’t be in the bill, but hasn’t said she would vote against the tax-reform bill if it was included. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) hasn’t rung any alarms that he would vote against the bill, saying he wants to see the whole package before deciding, and applauding the Finance Committee for holding hearings on the measure.

In a boost to the effort, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (R-Alaska) wrote in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Tuesday that she backs repealing the individual mandate. All three senators voted against a scaled-down version of an ObamaCare repeal bill in late July, effectively sinking the measure.

GOP leaders have signaled that a bipartisan stabilization bill from Sens. 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.) and 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 (D-Wash.) could pass if the individual mandate is repealed. On Sunday, Collins said she would like the Alexander-Murray bill, along with a bipartisan bill to provide funding for high-cost enrollees she introduced, to pass before tax reform does.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE (Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said that the deal is “likely” to be included in an end-of-the-year package.

But that effort could face resistance from Democrats, who have balked at repealing the individual mandate, and say that runs counter to the bipartisan spirit that Alexander-Murray was crafted under.

Will Congress reauthorize critical health programs it let lapse?

It’s been nearly two months since funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and community health centers expired. Advocates are holding out hope that lawmakers will reauthorize both before the new year, but are frustrated that Congress failed to reauthorize the dollars by a Sept. 30 deadline.

Roughly 9 million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. Some states have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories.

Community health centers have been crafting contingency plans as they wait for Congress to reauthorize a fund that amounts to 70 percent of their federal funding. These centers are a large source of comprehensive primary care for over 26 million of the nation’s most vulnerable people.

Some have already instituted hiring freezes. Others are examining which services they could cut or scale back. If the funding lapses, staff could be laid off, facility renovations or expansions could be canceled or delayed and hours of operation could be reduced.

Though the uncertainty has caused angst for health centers, they haven’t yet seen a monetary impact. But that impact could come on Jan. 1 for 25 percent of centers and on Feb. 1 for another 17 percent, because that’s when their new grant periods begin.

The Health Resources and Services Administration plans to help out on a prorated, monthly basis, according to a spokesperson.

But advocates hope it won’t come to that. The House passed a bill to fund CHIP for five years and community health centers for two. It passed on a party-line vote, as Democrats criticized how Republicans planned to pay for the bill.

The Senate Finance Committee passed a bipartisan, five-year CHIP extension, but hasn’t yet released offsets. Sens. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Democrats to Trump: Ask Forest Service before shrinking monuments MORE (D-Mich.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDems push for more money for opioid fight Trump asked Senate Republicans to end Russia election interference investigation: report An overlooked solution to the opioid epidemic MORE (R-Mo.) have introduced a bipartisan bill to extend community health center funding for five years.

Will Congress fund the opioid response?

In late October, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency.

But the move didn’t come with millions of new dollars to combat the crisis, nor did it include a funding ask to Congress. This has frustrated Democrats and many advocates, who say a significant infusion of federal funds is needed to make an emergency declaration effective.

It’s not clear if money will come.

Senate Democrats introduced a bill to provide $45 billion over 10 years to address the crisis — a nod to a similar amount of funding Republicans included in an ObamaCare repeal bill, in part to attempt to offset changes to Medicaid.

But Republicans haven’t named a dollar figure. With a jam-packed December, advocates worry the new year could begin without more money to help curb the crisis of prescription painkillers and heroin that’s ravaged the country.

As for the administration, Hogan Gidley, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement that “we will continue discussions with Congress on the appropriate level of funding needed to address this crisis” but didn’t say how much that would be.

What does Congress do on ObamaCare taxes?

Behind the scenes, industry lobbyists are working hard to ensure several ObamaCare taxes won’t kick in come January.

The medical device industry wants a full repeal of a 2.3 percent tax on the sale of certain medical devices, such as pacemakers and MRI machines.

“We feel we're very much in play and that is for full repeal,” said Greg Crist, a spokesman for the medical device trade association AdvaMed. “We're talking with staff and leadership for the right vehicle.”

The insurance industry is pushing for at least a one year delay of the health insurance tax. Both taxes were delayed in a 2015 spending bill, though for different durations; the medical device tax was paused for two years, and the health insurance tax for just 2017.

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Senate approves motion to go to tax conference Overnight Finance: GOP delays work on funding bill amid conservative demands | Senate panel approves Fed nominee Powell | Dodd-Frank rollback advances | WH disputes report Mueller subpoenaed Trump bank records MORE (R-Texas) addressed the ObamaCare taxes during a marathon hearing on House Republican’s tax-reform bill, saying the legislation wasn’t the right vehicle to repeal or delay them. But, he added, he is working to do so by the end of the year. 

"As the ranking member and members on both sides of the aisle know — we have been working with them over the past month to find a path forward,” Brady said. “We are working on common-sense temporary and targeted relief from many of these taxes to be acted on in the House before the end of the year.”

Employer groups are also pushing for a delay of the so-called Cadillac tax, a 40 percent fee levied on pricey employer-sponsored plans slated to begin in 2020. Critics of the tax argue a delay is needed now because employers will begin planning for 2020 next year.

Will Congress help Puerto Rico fund its Medicaid program?

The storm-ravaged island territory could be out of federal dollars for its Medicaid program in a matter of months.

Federal disaster funds haven’t been earmarked to go to the joint state-federal health insurance program for low-income and disabled Americans. On Nov. 17, the White House asked Congress for $44 billion for disaster relief. The notice mentioned Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, but didn’t put a dollar amount on it.

“Though the Administration expects to work with Puerto Rico and the Congress on medium-term liquidity issues through a future request, the Administration is aware of legislation being considered to address Medicaid sooner,” the letter stated.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló has asked for $1.6 billion annually for five years. Democratic lawmakers and advocates have been pushing to fulfill that request.

Peter Sullivan contributed.