As Attempts To Kill Obamacare Peter Out, Tennessee Starts To Look At How To Make It Better | Nashville Public Radio

As Attempts To Kill Obamacare Peter Out, Tennessee Starts To Look At How To Make It Better

Jul 19, 2017

Political leaders and advocates for the health care industry in Tennessee have begun to turn their attention to the future of Obamacare, after Senate Republicans signaled Tuesday that efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act were likely to fail.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters that Congress ought to focus on what he sees as a major failing of the ACA — an inability to rein in cost. Meanwhile, the head of the Tennessee Hospital Association said lawmakers should address the uncertainty that the fight over health care has caused in insurance markets.

Both said they hope the partisan bickering over health care will now subside.

"Something that (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer should be able to agree on is costs in health care have to be contained in a way they're not being now," Haslam said. "Because this is not sustainable."

McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate could still go ahead with a vote on repealing the ACA with a two-year sunset provision. If that were to pass, it would pressure senators into crafting a replacement for Obamacare — something Republicans have been unable to do despite holding majorities in both chambers of Congress.

But such a move would prolong the debate over health until at least 2019 and create further uncertainty for insurers. Even now, many insurers are dropping out of Obamacare's online exchanges nationwide, and those that remain are asking regulators to let them jack up premiums. 

In Tennessee, health insurance companies have asked to raise rates by 21 to 42 percent.

President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that Republicans should stand by and await the markets' collapse. But several Republicans in Congress said the idea is a nonstarter.

In Tennessee, about a quarter million Tennesseans buy their coverage through Obamacare's online exchanges, and THA President Craig Becker is optimistic Congress will at least intervene to help them.

"I'm fairly confident that they will, because particularly in a state like Tennessee, you don't want to have 250,000 people go off the rolls (and) lose their insurance," he said. "I think they would be pretty angry about that, and so there almost has to be something that happens to make sure those folks are protected."

Late Tuesday, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he's ready to call hearings on stabilizing the insurance markets. Alexander chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"However the votes come out on the health care bill, the Senate health committee has a responsibility during the next few weeks to hold hearings to continue exploring how to stabilize the individual market," Alexander said in a prepared statement.

Alexander's statement is being seen as a sign at least some Republicans in Congress believe the best way forward is to improve Obamacare, rather than repeal and replace it.

More Reforms Sought

The apparent change in direction cheered many who've been fighting the Republican health care bills.

Michele Johnson of the Tennessee Justice Center said lawmakers appeared to be more focused on partisan victories than improving the American health care system.

"The senators need to take from this experience that cutting the insurance of millions of Americans while giving tax cuts to the wealthy goes against our values and will not be supported by their constituents," she said.

Gov. Haslam similarly called on lawmakers in Washington to set aside their partisan differences over health care. He said Republicans' focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act has kept them from tackling the question of how to control spending, which has continued to soar under Obamacare.

"Republicans have yelled forever about Obamacare," he said. "There are two big challenges in the country: people not having coverage and the cost of health care."

Unless action is taken, Haslam said, spending on health care will continue to eat more and more of states' and the federal government's budgets. He suggested one option to be explored is letting Medicaid programs negotiate drug prices.

"The problem is, there's a lot of people invested," he said. "It's what now, 17 percent of our economy? ... But if we keep going the way we're going now, nobody is going to like where we end up."