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Senate Health Panel Will Hear From Governors, Insurance Leaders

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., will hear from a range of policy figures in constructing a bill to stabilize the health insurance markets. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., will hear from a range of policy figures in constructing a bill to stabilize the health insurance markets. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate’s key health care panel announced plans to hear from governors and state insurance commissioners early next month about ways to rein in rising prices for medical insurance purchased directly by consumers.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday set a hearing Sept. 6 with state insurance commissioners and another on Sept. 7 with governors. The committee, which has not yet said who will appear at the hearings, is also expected to announce additional sessions.

Lawmakers want to prevent insurers from further reducing their participation in the individual insurance market, with aims of preventing premium hikes and minimizing the number of counties without any insurers participating in the exchanges.

The bipartisan hearings mark a stark change in direction on health care policy for the Senate. Republicans spent the first seven months of the year trying to roll back the Democrats’ 2010 health care law by themselves, using the budget reconciliation process.

After the Senate failed to pass three different proposals last month, HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced they would work on a bipartisan stabilization measure in September. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has said he hopes the committee can pass something quickly in September, as insurers offering policies on the exchanges for 2018 are set to sign contracts with the federal government Sept. 27.

The committee is likely to craft a tightly focused measure, compared with the wide-ranging GOP proposals considered unsuccessfully earlier in the year, including a House-passed reconciliation bill. Alexander has said he expects it to include funding for the health law’s cost-sharing reduction payments and to allow additional flexibility for so-called Section 1332 waivers, which allow states to waive certain insurance requirements under the law to experiment with different coverage models.

A bipartisan measure related to the health care law would be a heavy lift for Congress, which faces several pressing deadlines by the end of the end of the fiscal year. These include raising the nation’s debt limit and keeping the federal government funded in early fiscal 2018 with a stopgap continuing resolution.

And some Republicans are loath to abandon the effort to revise and undo parts of the 2010 law. President Donald Trump has urged Senate Republicans to revive what they call repeal efforts. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday the path forward on health care was “murky.”

Meanwhile, a trio of GOP Senators — Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Dean Heller of Nevada — are continuing to push their own proposal, which would shift federal funding and decision making to states.

House Republicans, who passed their bill to roll back much of the 2010 law and overhaul Medicaid in May, also remain hopeful the Senate will return to the repeal effort.

“We can’t take nothing for an answer,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said at a CNN town hall Monday night.

Outspoken Governors

At least two governors hope to appear before the HELP Committee next month to tout their own plan. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told Colorado Matters in a Monday interview they are working on a joint health care plan focused on stabilization. Their plan could be ready as soon as next week and they hope it will win the support of other governors, Kasich said.

“We’re trying to stabilize insurance markets here first,” Kasich said. “You have to find things that you can agree upon and this is the most critical aspect of what needs to be fixed.”

Both have called for Congress to allocate funding for the law’s cost-sharing reduction payments, which would alleviate uncertainty for insurers. Insurers have made it clear that they will increase their premium rates in the individual market if the administration does not continue making the CSR payments.

Hickenlooper said creating a reinsurance program, which would help insurers cover the sickest patients, would help drive down premium costs, another issue that some lawmakers have pointed to as a way to lower costs.

The two governors have also said they would be open to raising the threshold for an employer to be required to offer insurance to its employees under the law from 50. Kasich noted in the interview that they’ve disagreed on the topic of the individual mandate.

The governors long have argued a partisan approach to health care isn’t productive. Hickenlooper said he thinks there’s more openness to a joint approach, noting the HELP committee’s plans and a proposal from the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus.

“They are now holding hearings and hopefully in those hearings we’ll get a chance to present, hopefully by that point a number of both Republican and Democratic governors think look like good ideas,” he said.