GOP seeks health care reboot after 2018 losses

Republicans are looking for a new message and platform to replace their longtime call to repeal and replace ObamaCare, after efforts failed in the last Congress and left them empty-handed in the 2018 midterm elections. 

Republican strategists concede that Democrats dominated the health care debate heading into Election Day, helping them pick up 40 seats in the House. 

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE hammered away on immigration in the fall campaign, which helped Senate Republican candidates win in conservative states but proved less effective in suburban swing areas, which will be crucial in the 2020 election. 

While Trump is focused on raising the profile of illegal immigration during a standoff over the border wall, other Republicans are quietly looking for a better strategy on health care, which is usually a top polling issue.

“Health care is such a significant part of our economy and the challenges are growing so great with the retirement of the baby boomers and the disruption brought about by ObamaCare that you can’t just cede a critically important issue to the other side,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

“Republicans need a positive vision about what should happen to lower costs, expand access and protect pre-existing conditions,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to answer the question, ‘So what do you think we should do about health care?’ ” 

A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that 49 percent of respondents nationwide said government should tackle health care as a top priority, second only to economic concerns.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed to lower prescription drug costs, but the Republican-controlled Congress over the past couple of years focused on other matters. House Democrats who are now in the majority say they are willing to work with the White House on drug pricing, but it’s unclear if Republicans will take on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, long considered a GOP ally. 

Republican candidates made the repeal of ObamaCare their main message in the 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections. But after repeal legislation collapsed with the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid McCain's family, McCain Institute to promote #ActsOfCivility in marking first anniversary of senator's death MORE’s (R-Ariz.) famous “no” vote, the party’s message became muddled and Democrats went on the offensive. 

Some Republicans continued to work on alternative legislation, such as a Medicaid block grant bill sponsored by Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week MORE (S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyBottom Line I'm not a Nazi, I'm just a dude: What it's like to be the other Steve King Washington takes historic step forward on paid parental leave MORE (La.), but it failed to gain much traction and the GOP health care message was left in limbo. 

“We should be the guys and gals that are putting up things that make health care more affordable and more accessible,” said Jim McLaughlin, another Republican pollster. “No question Democrats had an advantage over us on health care, which they never should have had because they’re the ones that gave us the unpopular ObamaCare.”

“We need to take it to the next level,” he added. “You can’t get [ObamaCare] repealed. Let’s do things that will make health care more affordable and more accessible.” 

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE (R-Tenn.), a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster Hickenlooper announces Senate bid Trump orders elimination of student loan debt for thousands of disabled veterans MORE (R-Ky.), says finding an answer to that question will be his top priority in the weeks ahead. 

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Alexander will be meeting soon with Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Planned Parenthood to leave federal family planning program absent court action | Democrats demand Trump withdraw rule on transgender health | Cummings, Sanders investigate three drug companies for 'obstructing' probe Democrats demand Trump officials withdraw rule on transgender health The Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health Committee, as well as Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyWhite House denies exploring payroll tax cut to offset worsening economy Schumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord GOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.), the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, to explore solutions for lowering health care costs. 

“I’ll be meeting with senators on reducing health care costs,” Alexander told The Hill in a recent interview. “At a time when one-half of our health care spending is unnecessary, according to the experts, we ought to be able to agree in a bipartisan way to reduce that.”

He recently announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of 2020, freeing him to devote his time to the complex and politically challenging issue of health care reform without overhanging reelection concerns. 

Alexander sent a letter to the center-right leaning American Enterprise Institute and the center-left leaning Brookings Institution last month requesting recommendations by March 1 for lowering health care costs.  

In a Dec. 11 floor speech, Alexander signaled that Republicans want to move away from the acrimonious question of how to help people who don’t have employer-provided health insurance, a question that dominated the ObamaCare debate of the past decade, and focus instead on how to make treatment more affordable.  

He noted that experts who testified before the Senate in the second half of last year estimated that 30 to 50 percent of all health care spending is unnecessary. 

“The truth is we will never have lower cost health insurance until we have lower cost health care,” Alexander said on the floor. “Instead of continuing to argue over a small part of the insurance market, what we should be discussing is the high cost of health care that affects every American.”

A Senate Republican aide said GOP lawmakers are prepared to abandon the battle over the best way to regulate health insurance and focus instead on costs, which they now see as a more fundamental issue. 

“There’s no point in trying to talk about health insurance anymore. Fundamentally, insurance won’t be affordable until we make heath care affordable, so we have to do stuff to reduce health care costs,” said the aide. 

“There are lots of things that can be done to reduce health care costs that aren’t insurance, that aren’t necessarily partisan,” the source added. 

“We’re looking at ideas that aren’t necessarily partisan and don’t advance the cause of single-payer health care and don’t advance the cause of ‘only the market’ but are about addressing these drivers of health care cost and try to change the trajectory.” 

Another key player is Cassidy, a physician and member of the Health and Finance committees, who has co-sponsored at least seven bills to improve access and lower costs. 

One measure Cassidy backed is co-sponsored by Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithFormer GOP Rep. Jason Lewis says he'll challenge Tina Smith in Minnesota Reid says he wishes Franken would run for Senate again Senate Democrats introduce bill to combat foreign influence campaigns MORE (D-Minn.), and would develop innovative ways to reduce unnecessary administrative costs.

Another measure Cassidy co-sponsored with Sens. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellWill Congress act to stop robocalls? Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks MORE (D-Wash.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal MORE (D-Del.) would allow individuals to pay for primary-care service from a health savings account and allow taxpayers enrolled in high-deductible health plans to take a tax deduction for payments to such savings accounts.

He is also working on a draft bill to prohibit the surprise medical billing of patients. 

McConnell signaled after Democrats won control of the House in November that the GOP would abandon its partisan approach to health care reform and concentrate instead on bipartisan proposals to address mounting costs, which Democratic candidates capitalized on in the fall campaign.

Asked about whether the GOP would stick with its mission to repeal ObamaCare, McConnell said “it’s pretty obvious the Democratic House is not going to be interested in that.”