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Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles

Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles
© Greg Nash

Bipartisan negotiations over an extension of children’s health insurance are veering off course, raising doubts that legislation can be passed quickly.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell: COVID-19 relief will be added to omnibus spending package Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden MORE (N.Y.) played hardball on Wednesday, saying a fix for ObamaCare that is being negotiated by Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMurkowski: Trump should concede White House race Mark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot National reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (D-Wash.) should be attached to the children’s health funding bill.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line Bottom line MORE (R-Utah) ripped Schumer’s move.

“We should not jeopardize vulnerable children’s health insurance coverage by turning the bill into a Christmas tree and adding controversial policies like bailing out insurance companies,” Hatch said in a statement.

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“It’s regrettable that some Democrats are more interested in trying to score cheap political points than actually solving the problem.”

Meanwhile, in the House, the bipartisan talks over a deal to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) seem to have fallen apart. House Republicans are now pushing forward with a bill that Democrats oppose because of how it is funded.

“It’s not looking good. It really isn’t,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. “After yesterday they didn’t want to negotiate any more on the Republican side, and there’s no suggestion that we continue negotiating.”

Pallone said Republicans appear to be preparing to bring their bill to the floor for a vote without a bipartisan deal with Democrats. Democrats object to how the current bill pays for the extension of CHIP, which provides health insurance to 9 million children.

The offsets chosen by the GOP include cutting a public health fund in Obama-Care and making wealthy Medicare beneficiaries pay more for their health care.

With the House and Senate haggling over the bill, state officials are increasingly in a difficult spot.

The authorization for CHIP lapsed on Sept. 30. The first states do not start to run out of money until around December, but there are steps that might have to be taken before then, like sending warning letters to enrollees that they could lose their coverage.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), while leaving the door open to future talks, said he had a made a good faith effort to reach a bipartisan agreement with Democrats, but at some point he had to go forward, given the Sept. 30 deadline has already passed.

“I kept the negotiations open and going past the Sept. 30 [deadline],” Walden told The Hill.

Ultimately, with the deadline passed, he said, “we can’t be negotiating forever.”

Democrats said they made offers to Republicans on how to pay for the bill that were rejected.

“There were things they wanted us to do that we wouldn’t have the votes,” Walden said.

“We just couldn’t reach agreement,” he added. “We were close.”

Complicating the talks further, House Republicans could seek to link the CHIP bill to the repeal of a controversial board in ObamaCare that is designed to control Medicare costs. Some Democrats are open to repeal of that board, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board, in theory, but they object that repeal would not be paid for. 

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Schumer is eyeing CHIP as an opening for changes to ObamaCare.

The fix that Schumer and Democrats want would fund ObamaCare subsidy payments to insurers in exchange for granting states more flexibility to innovate and change ObamaCare rules.

Alexander and Murray are close to a deal but do not have one yet. Even if they do reach one, though, it will be tough to pass a stand-alone bill through the full Senate, given that many other Republicans, including Hatch, are resistant to helping ObamaCare.

Attaching the measure to a must-pass bill like CHIP could be a way for Democrats to get the bill through.

Asked if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (R-Ky.) is open to combining an ObamaCare stabilization bill and CHIP, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart noted that there is no stabilization bill yet, so it is hard to answer a “hypothetical” question.

Alexander likewise said Schumer’s push is “premature.”

“When we have agreement, I’m going to hand it to Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer and I know they will, in their wisdom, know what to do with it,” Alexander said.