GOP open to extending ObamaCare subsidies

House conservatives are hinting at support for a temporary extension of Obama-Care subsidies if the Supreme Court cripples the law, even as they set up a working group to develop their own plan. 

The high court is set to rule later this month in the case of King v. Burwell, which could invalidate subsidies for millions of people in at least 34 states using the federally run marketplace. Republicans say they need to be ready to address people losing their coverage, but have yet to coalesce around a plan.

{mosads}Now another proposal is in the works. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus told The Hill they are setting up a group of four or five lawmakers, led by Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). The lawmakers will develop a plan meant to influence the main House working group led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and two other panel chairmen, which Fleming complained is meeting in “secret.”

While working on their own ideas, Freedom Caucus members are also open to something like Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) idea to temporarily extend subsidies.

Johnson’s plan would extend ObamaCare subsidies through August 2017, when he hopes there will be a Republican president, while also repealing the law’s individual and employer mandates. 

His bill has 31 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It has not received the same welcome in the House, though; Ryan’s working group is still publicly undecided on the question, and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) came out in opposition to the idea last month. 

The Freedom Caucus debated Johnson’s plan for half an hour at a meeting Monday night.

“I think that I could only support it if it had a definite expiration at the end of 2016, or maybe in the first half of 2017,” Fleming said. 

Other members said they were originally skeptical when told of the idea to extend ObamaCare subsidies but warmed to it once they learned Johnson’s plan would also repeal the individual and employer mandates, which they say gives people more freedom. 

“When it was first presented to me, the person from the press that presented it to me said [Johnson] just wanted to extend the subsidies, and if that were the only case, no way would I support that,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). However, Salmon noted the plan also repeals the mandates and said, “Anything that would get rid of fundamental parts of ObamaCare will ultimately lead to its demise.” 

The American Academy of Actuaries warned last week that removing the mandates could cause premiums to skyrocket, because sicker people would be more likely to be insured.

“I think the initial headlines of Sen. Johnson’s bill gave people a little caution,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “However, when you look at the fact that the employer and individual mandates go away, what does that do? And so I think it’s trying to take his concept and say, ‘Alright what is the end of result of that?’ We debated that for about 30 minutes.” 

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called it a “bad idea to continue the subsides, especially for the length of time that Senator Johnson is suggesting.”

“There may have to be some transition period,” he added. “But the transition period that people are talking about is more like within the year rather than three years.”

The Freedom Caucus working group has not met yet. Fleming, lamenting that the House’s primary planners are “kind of a secret group,” said there is “no reason why we shouldn’t be working on our ideas.

“Because ultimately whatever they come up with has got to be passed, so they’ll have to run that by us, and if we have better ideas, we can either [exchange] it or we can amend it,” he added.

Republicans acknowledge they will face pressure to do something if the court rules for the challengers. Figures from the Obama administration released Tuesday show 6.4 million people would lose subsidies that help them afford insurance. 

The states that did not set up their own exchanges, and are therefore in danger of losing subsidies, are concentrated in the Midwest and South — areas many of the conservative members represent. 

Of course, all of the plans could be moot if the court rules for the administration and upholds the subsidies. The court could also delay the expiration of the subsidies to give time for a backup plan to kick in. The main House and Senate working groups say they will not release their full plans until after they see the details of the ruling. 

Outside of Congress, states can create their own exchanges in order to keep subsidies flowing, as Pennsylvania on Tuesday announced it would do. But Republican governors are more resistant to that option. 

Johnson said he has been in touch with many House members as well.

“There’s still a lot of people who, their only solution is full repeal,” he acknowledged. 

He added that, in a perfect world, he also would favor repeal. However, he said, “It’s not so simple anymore.”

Tags John Fleming Justin Amash Matt Salmon Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Ron Johnson

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