Senators seek bipartisan deal to shore up insurance markets

Senators are launching hearings to help Republicans and Democrats decide if they can forge a modest agreement to shore up the nation’s individual insurance markets. The effort will show whether divided Republicans are ready to pivot from trying to obliterate the Obama health care law to helping it survive, and if both parties can overcome lingering raw feelings over that battle.

The Senate health committee was holding the first of four scheduled hearings Wednesday, with testimony planned from five states’ insurance commissioners. The session comes with analysts expecting 2018 premium increases to match or exceed the average 25 percent boosts on midlevel plans sold this year on the government’s online marketplace. Insurers say additional upsurges are possible due to uncertainty over actions by the Trump administration.

In addition, nearly half the nation’s roughly 3,000 counties are expected to have only one insurer offering coverage on government insurance exchanges next year. Republicans say that lack of competition shows a failing of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law. Republicans also had asserted that a handful of mostly rural counties would have no insurers selling policies in 2018, but the latest federal figures project that will not happen.

The bipartisan push is being led by health committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and the panel’s top Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington state. Alexander wants a bill approved by late September — when insurers must decide whether they will sell policies on the government marketplace — in hopes that the legislation would avert even steeper premium increases.

“We’ll see if there’s a limited bipartisan step we can take,” Alexander said in an interview Tuesday. “The timing is challenging. Getting Congress to do something in three weeks is hard to do.”

Alexander envisions a bill that would finance government subsidies to insurers for 2018. The payments, which cost around $7 billion this year, compensate companies for lowering out-of-pockets costs for customers’ deductibles and co-payments, which Obama’s law requires. Almost 7 million lower-earning people benefit from the reductions.

The subsidies are also legally required, but they’re the subject of a federal court case over whether Congress properly approved the payments. President Donald Trump has threatened to halt them, calling them bailouts for insurers. Insurance companies and nonpartisan budget analysts say…

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