Committee Members Spar Over Obamacare Repeal

WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of a House committee held a testy, partisan slugfest over repealing Obamacare Tuesday, with Republicans citing its failures and Democrats accusing their counterparts of pulling the rug out from under millions of Americans without a plan to repeal the maligned law.

With few exceptions, each side came armed with a set of opposing facts to support their positions, leading Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to proclaim that although she had served on the Budget Committee in the 112th Congress, “it appears that I have returned to the alternate facts committee” in the 115th.

“Because that’s what we’ve been subjected to throughout this hearing,” the Democrat from Florida said about halfway through the hearing.

Republicans on the House Budget Committee – led by Republican chairwoman Diane Black of Tennessee – warned of a health care system on the verge of a death spiral. Democrats, on the other hand, accused Republicans of complaining about the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, without offering any constructive solutions.

In her opening remarks of the hearing dubbed “The Failures of Obamacare: Harmful Effects and Broken Promises,” Black downplayed the Jan. 17 Congressional Budget Office report that determined 18 million Americans would lose health care in the first year after repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“What the CBO study ignores is any potential Republican ideas to reform the health care and expand access,” the committee chairman said.

According to Black, the Affordable Care Act is also responsible for booting tens of thousands off their previous coverage.

“In my home state of Tennessee, 28,000 people lost coverage on a single day when the CoverTN program lapsed after the Obama administration decreed that it ran afoul of the federal government’s top-down requirements,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz, however, had a very different set of facts, and called Black out on some of hers.

“I wonder if it would surprise you to learn that 28 percent more Tennesseans gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act,” she said, adding that 260,000 more Tennesseans have insurance now who did not have it before.

Many of the 28,000 kicked off their plans before implementation of Obamacare were able to get more affordable health care plans, Wasserman Schultz suggested.

Black, a nurse for more than 40 years, also claimed the Affordable Care Act was responsible for 80 hospital closures since 2010, insurance premium and deductable spikes, and states and counties being reduced to only one insurance provider.

“Average family premiums have risen by $4,300 and deductibles have risen by 60 percent in the employer-sponsored market,” Black said.

Rising rates have indeed sparked concerns for Americans struggling to make ends meet. And many young Americans, as noted by Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute who testified before the committee, are opting to pay the penalty or get an exemption rather than enroll in health insurance.

“Young people purchasing individual policies in or out of the exchanges are required to pay much more for their policies than their actuarially-expected costs because of the law’s required 3:1 age rating band,” she said in written testimony.

“Forcing the young to pay more drives costs up for everyone,” Turner added, noting that their lack of participation has destabilized the insurance exchange pools.

Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna from California pressed Turner for details on replacement plans, after noting that she told the New York Times that President Donald Trump’s health care proposals were “sketchy and inadequate.” Khanna said Turner went on to say that “he has to flush out his proposals with much more detail if he hopes to persuade voters that he has a credible plan to replace Obamacare.”

Turner recalled the comments but noted she made them early in the primary season. Turner said Trump’s plan is more detailed now. Providing no detail on this, however, Turner said only that power would be returned to the states. Saying that Trump is working with Congress, Turner said the president will deregulate the market and give people more choices of coverage. Frustrated with Turner’s inability to provide more specifics, Khanna moved on.

Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky told the committee that his state has gotten healthier under Obamacare. The Democrat suggested that the level of counties with only one insurance provider is proportional to its population. In other words, those counties are sparsely populated and can’t support more than one insurer.

Yarmuth also pushed back on Black’s assertion that rural hospitals have closed because of the Affordable Care Act.

“In my state of Kentucky, what we’ve heard is that rural hospitals have been saved by the ACA,” he said, abbreviating the health care law.

Yarmuth asked Dr. Linda J. Blumberg with the Urban Institute what kind of coverage someone could buy with a health care plan based on tax credits, such as the one put forth by Trump’s pick for health secretary, Tom Price, the former chairman of the committee.

The idea is that Americans would get a tax credit to buy insurance that would vary by age, and would range from $900-$3,000 per person.

Blumberg said the Urban Institute developed recent estimates based on replacement plans leaning toward an age-rating system, like Price’s.

The deductible for an individual would be $25,000 and $50,000 for a family, she said – a sharp rise from deductibles under the Affordable Care Act.

It would also exclude non-generic drugs like chemotherapy drugs, insulin and other expensive drugs that treat chronic illnesses, and would eliminate coverage for outpatient mental health services, substance-use disorder treatment, and speech, occupational and physical therapies, she said.

The Urban Institute recommends fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it.

“Repeal without replacement is a recipe for a death spiral,” Blumberg said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wa., said in an interview after the hearing that the partisan split on the issue is “distressing.”

Jayapal served in the Republican-controlled state senate in Washington state. The majority chairman for the state health care committee was against repeal without replacement, she said.

“There is no replacement,” Jayapal added. “In fact nobody in our state has been able to do any planning because they don’t know what the planning is around.”

“It’s distressing to me that this [repeal] is being put forward as something that is beneficial to the American people, when in fact Republicans and Democrats across the country have benefited from the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Jayapal added, “I would love to work on things that would make it better,” noting that she worked with Republican colleagues in the Washington State Senate, whom she says she didn’t always agree with, to do just that.

Jayapal called it unconscionable to not have a replacement plan.

“Millions of people across this country are terrified that they will die. This is not a theoretical exercise,” she said.

“This is about people’s futures and I feel like the Republicans have just refused to acknowledge that in fact, the Affordable Care Act was a terrific start. Are there things that we should do to improve it? Absolutely, let’s work on those things,” she added. “But repeal without a replacement is absolutely irresponsible.”

During a separate hearing Tuesday to confirm his appointment as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Price was grilled by Democrats over what they see as conflicts of interest.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, went toe-to-toe with Price over personal details Price supplied on his nomination application, reminding the committee that Price had actively traded the health care stocks in question while promoting legislation that could benefit the companies in which he had invested.

Calling him the “architect of repeal and run,” Wyden offered a dire summation of what will lie in store if Price, under direction from the Trump administration, repeals the health care program without a viable solution in sight.

“Eighteen million Americans will lose health care in less than two years. You would go from 26 million uninsured to 59 million. Repeal and replace raises prices by more than half, and low- or no-cost contraceptive coverage for millions of women is gone.”

“This will take us back to the dark days when health care was only for the healthy and wealthy,” he added.

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