Senators reach bipartisan deal to save key Obamacare subsidies

There is not yet a guarantee from leadership that the bill will come to the floor for a vote.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, accompanied by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., right, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, accompanied by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., right, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have reached a deal on “a short-term limited plan to stabilize health care markets,” Alexander announced Tuesday afternoon. The deal includes vital Obamacare subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction payments that the White House announced it will no longer pay last Thursday.

Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health Committee, said there was no guarantee from Senate Leadership that the bill would go to the floor for a vote, but that Alexander and Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Health Committee, were going to round up co-sponsors and then present the bill to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

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Schumer did tell CNN that he thought the deal was a “good solution” and that it got “broad support” from the Democratic caucus at their lunch Tuesday. Although details are still forthcoming, Schumer said the deal includes “anti-sabotage” provisions.

“A very good step forward,” Schumer said.

President Trump, however, does not appear to be on board.

“We will not provide bailouts to insurance companies until we provide the American people with relief from the Obamacare disaster,” a White House official told CNBC.

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Earlier Tuesday, Trump was asked if he could sign the bill after saying the CSR payments are insurance company bailouts and offered a mostly incoherent answer.

“We want the money to go to the people,” Trump said. “The insurance companies have absolutely taken advantage of this country and our people and I stopped it by stopping the CSRs…. I’ll say this, we have to work a deal. Any deal that we work with the Democrats, we’re also going to have to work with the insurance companies.”

The CSRs, which help insurers cover lower-income people, were the subject of a lawsuit filed by House Republicans during the Obama administration, which House Republicans won. The Obama administration appealed and continued making the payments, worth an estimated $7 billion per year.

CNBC reports that, in exchange for CSR payments, Democrats have accepted more “catastrophic” plans for people over the age of 30 and flexibility for states looking to obtain waivers that allow them to waive certain Obamacare provisions. The deal extends the waiver period from five years to six, and states can copy certain waivers HHS has already approved.

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The deal also restores $106 million for ACA outreach and enrollment. In August, the Trump administration slashed funding for enrollment advertising by 90 percent, from $100 million to $10 million, and cut nearly $30 million in funding from nonprofit groups that help people enroll in Obamacare.

Alexander was cautious about celebrating too soon Tuesday, saying, “This is a small step. I’d like to undersell it, not oversell it.”

The bill could also face resistance in the House. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told Talking Points Memo he thought the House could block the Alexander-Murray deal but restore the CSRs that Trump cut last week.

The Alexander-Murray deal comes after the Senate tried and failed to repeal Obamacare a number of times, most recently falling short of the necessary votes to pass the Graham-Cassidy repeal bill in late September.

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Trump also signed an executive order last week that allows insurers to offer plans that don’t cover everything required under the Affordable Care Act, allowing individuals who feel they don’t need robust coverage to purchase cheaper plans that offer fewer benefits.

This story has been updated with additional information about the bill and lawmaker reactions.