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White House, lawmakers adrift over reviving health bill

AP Washington 05 Apr 2017, 16:45:20
AP

The Trump administration and Republican lawmakers plan to continue their uphill effort to exhume the House GOP's all-but-buried health care bill, but remain adrift and divided over how to reshape it to attract enough votes to muscle it through the chamber.

White House officials and leading legislators aimed to resume talks Wednesday. Late Tuesday, they failed in a Capitol basement office meeting to shake hands on a White House proposal to let states seek federal waivers to drop coverage mandates that President Barack Obama's health care law slapped on the insurance industry.

"All of us want an agreement," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters after two dozen lawmakers from both ends of the GOP spectrum huddled with Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials. Meadows added, "There's a whole lot of things that we have to work out."

Meadows leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose roughly three dozen members have largely opposed the GOP legislation for not going far enough to abrogate Obama's Affordable Care Act, and their opposition helped to thwart the measure in the House in late March.

The White House offers got an uneven reception earlier Tuesday from GOP moderates and conservatives, leaving prospects shaky that the party could salvage one of its leading legislative priorities. There was no evidence that the proposals won over any of the GOP opponents who humiliated President Donald Trump and House leaders on March 24, forcing them to cancel a planned vote on a Republican health care bill that was destined to lose.

"We want to make sure that when we go, we have the votes to pass this bill," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters. He said talks were in "the conceptual stage."

Later Tuesday, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., his party's chief vote counter, said discussions were not "where there is consensus" on health care and indicated a vote this week was unlikely. Congress leaves town in days for a two-week recess, when lawmakers could face antagonistic grilling from voters at town hall meetings and the entire GOP drive might lose momentum.

Under the White House proposal, states could apply for a federal waiver from a provision in Obama's law that obliges insurers to cover "essential health benefits," including mental health, maternity and substance abuse services. The current version of the GOP legislation would erase that coverage requirement but let states reimpose it themselves, language that is opposed by many of the party's moderates.

In addition, the White House would let states seek an exemption to the law's provision banning insurers from charging higher premiums for seriously ill people. Conservatives have argued that such restrictions inflate consumer costs.

Conservative Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said he remained a "no" votes, saying states should be allowed to opt out of Obama's insurance requirements without seeking federal permission "on bended knee."

Moderate Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., also remained an opponent, citing the GOP bill's cuts in care offered low-income people under Medicaid and the higher out-of-pocket costs it would impose on many poorer and older consumers.

Some members of the Freedom Caucus were showing signs of accepting less than many originally wanted. Meadows said talks were boiling down to curbing several of Obama's coverage requirements — a sharp contrast to the full repeal of the statute that many initially demanded.

"It perhaps is as much of a repeal as we can get done," Meadows told reporters.

A poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation flashed a warning for the White House, showing that 3 in 4 Americans want the Trump administration to make Obama's law work.

About 2 in 3 said they were glad the House GOP bill didn't pass last month. But people split evenly between wanting to keep or repeal Obama's statute.

The underlying House Republican bill would repeal much of Obama's 2010 law. It would erase its tax fines for consumers who don't buy policies, federal aid to help many afford coverage and Medicaid expansion for additional poor people.

Instead, opponents of the current measure say they want tax subsidies for health care to less generous than under Obama's program for many lower wage-earners and people in their 50s and 60s. They also would cut the Medicaid program and tax increases on higher earners would be eliminated. Consumers who let coverage lapse would face 30 percent premium hikes.