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President Trump seesaws on support for bipartisan health bill

President Donald Trump applauds members of the audience

President Donald Trump applauds members of the audience before speaking at the Heritage Foundation's annual President's Club meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 in Washington. Credit: AP

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday withheld support from the bipartisan bill to stabilize Obamacare markets, even though he had praised it Tuesday and encouraged Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander to negotiate it with Democrat Sen. Patty Murray.

Trump has offered conflicting views of the compromise since Tuesday. After Alexander of Tennessee and Murray of Washington declared they had reached a deal, Trump called it a “very good solution” in the afternoon but in the evening criticized it.

The bill would resume federal payments that Trump cut off last week to insurers for lowering deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for low-income people — an amount estimated to be $7 billion this year — and offer some flexibility to states.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump does not support the bill, and explained that it falls short of the goals of much broader legislation to lower premiums, provide states greater flexibility, stoke competition and create state block grants.

She called the bill a “step in the right direction,” and said, “But it’s not a full approach and needs something to go a little bit further to get on board.”

Early Wednesday, Alexander, the Senate health committee chairman, expressed optimism about the bipartisan package, saying Trump had called him that morning to encourage him and to tell him he would “review it to see if he wants to add anything” to it.

“I predict it will pass on the Senate floor before the end of the year,” Alexander said at an event held by the Axios news website.

But shortly after the event, Trump tweeted: “I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.”

Later in the day, as Trump met with Senate Finance Committee members about the tax overhaul, he said that “if something can happen, that’s fine. But I won’t do anything to enrich the insurance companies” with the payments, called cost-sharing reductions, or CSRs.

Alexander took to Twitter to respond to Trump.

“He and I absolutely agree that CSRs should benefit consumers and not insurance companies,” Alexander tweeted. “The Alexander-Murray agreement has strong language to do that, and I will work with the president to see if we can make it even stronger.”

A draft of the bill requires insurers’ health plans to offer the federal subsidies as one-time or monthly rebates to consumers or the money will be repaid to the government, NPR reported.

Alexander said he and Murray will make the bill and its list of co-sponsors public on Thursday. He said the bill could serve as a bridge by stabilizing the market between now and when a Republican replacement bill is passed and goes into effect in 2019 or 2020.

Their bill won support from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), co-sponsor of the Trump-backed bill to shift control of health care decisions and federal funding through block grants to the states.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he supports the bill, and said he would be glad to make the language stronger. But he said Trump was creating an obstruction to passage by “flip-flopping.”

“The president ought to make up his mind,” Schumer said. “He ought to read the bill before he tweets.”

The president’s wavering only serves to make it harder for the bipartisan legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not commented, but McConnell has been dismissive of what he called “throwing money” at insurers. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) opposes the bipartisan bill.

“The speaker does not see anything that changes his view that the Senate should keep its focus on repeal and replace of Obamacare,” his press secretary Doug Andres told Axios.

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