Signs of sanity as Murray tries for health care deal

From the Editorial Board

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are ready to cut a bipartisan deal on health care.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are ready to cut a bipartisan deal on health care. AP

A big lesson of Obamacare is that a one-party health care solution doesn’t work long term. Compromise is the only path forward, but today’s political arena is hardly fertile ground for that; instead, it’s a battlefield.

If a bargain is to be struck, politicians will have to step out of their trenches. But who’s courageous enough to cross party lines?

The answer is Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Washington’s own Sen. Patty Murray, both of whom seem weary of partisan blowhards obstructing good governance.

Alexander is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Murray is the ranking Democrat. The two worked successfully to rewrite the flawed No Child Left Behind Act in 2015.

They renewed their partnership after the Republicans’ “skinny repeal” of Obamacare was shot down in July.

The pair held four hearings on health care in September, and the results were promising. A bipartisan group of governors, insurers, state regulators and other healthcare professionals supported many of their ideas.

But the GOP put a stop to those talks a few weeks ago, insisting sole focus be on a bill sponsored by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy. Why continue with a collective solution, they figured, when there’s a possibility for a one-sided win?

Republicans have tried more than 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the seven years it’s been law. This is the third attempt since President Trump took office. Murray called it “the worst one yet.”

If not for the three solid “no” votes of Republican Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins and Rand Paul, the law would’ve left millions without health insurance.

Two studies estimated Washington would have forfeited about $17 billion in federal funding, resulting in more than 650,000 people losing Medicaid coverage. Washington Apple Health, which covers more than half the state’s kids, would’ve been undermined.

Once the bill failed, Murray was anxious to resume talks with her moderate colleague Alexander, saying, “Let’s pick back up right where we left off and let’s do it right now.”

Three cheers for the two leaders who are back at work trying to cut a bipartisan deal and stabilize health care markets. The fix might be short-term, but it’s a cooperative step in the right direction.

Uncertain footing has made it difficult for insurers to sell policies on the individual market. Without federal cost-sharing subsidies, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates premiums will go up, on average, 19 percent.

Next year Washington consumers will see their premiums jump by 24 percent, the largest premium increase since the exchange was created in 2013.

But Republicans oppose stabilization, calling it a “new entitlement.” They filed a lawsuit claiming it’s unconstitutional. It’s now on appeal.

Trump called stabilization a bailout for insurance companies. Some accuse him of giving Obamacare’s demise a push. Changes in enrollment are used as evidence.

The feds cut the time of open enrollment for the ACA in half — It will run from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15 — and the website, Healthcare.gov, will be shut down on all but one Sunday morning.

And in spite of a bipartisan coalition of governors urging the administration to fund outreach and enrollment support, the advertising budget was cut by more than 90 percent.

Letting Obamacare implode would be reckless. The same goes for defunding commitments like the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Community Health Centers. Since CHIP’s 1997 inception, the uninsured rate for children fell from 13.9 percent to less than 5 percent today.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that failure to renew these funds would result in the loss of 51,000 jobs and the closure of 2,800 community health centers. It also would leave 8.4 million children without health care, including an estimated two million kids with chronic conditions.

For Murray and Alexander, stabilizing the insurance markets remains top priority. Lobbyists and aides listening in on the negotiations report progress.

They hint at waivers allowing states to innovate, change regulations and offer a choice of cheaper plans. But House Speaker Paul Ryan has already told the Senate an Alexander-Murray deal “isn’t viable.” He has called his troops back to the trenches.

Ryan apparently would rather see politics as usual, where a red team and a blue team go head-to-head and everyone loses.

We prefer the Murray-Alexander strategy of open hearings and open minds — not open warfare.