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 TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers 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 McCainIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Earth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private 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 GrahamIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again Graham challenges Dems to walk the walk on impeachment Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE (S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyGOP senator issues stark warning to Republicans on health care Bipartisan senators offer bill to expand electric vehicle tax credit Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions 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 Higher Education Act must protect free speech Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback MORE (R-Tenn.), a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote McConnell: 'Time to move on' from Trump impeachment talk 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 MurrayHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health Committee, as well as Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy Hillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech 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 SmithGOP Senate campaign arm hits battleground-state Dems over 'Medicare for All,' Green New Deal Hillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' MORE (D-Minn.), and would develop innovative ways to reduce unnecessary administrative costs.

Another measure Cassidy co-sponsored with Sens. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMore than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington State rules complicate push for federal data privacy law MORE (D-Wash.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDem senators launch Environmental Justice Caucus Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Koch network launches ad campaign opposing Trump's proposed gas tax 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.”