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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Patty Murray, Lamar Alexander announce hearings for potential bipartisan Obamacare fix

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 1, 2017

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., leaves the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) ORG XMIT: DCMC205 (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., leaves the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) ORG XMIT: DCMC205 (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

What a concept.

Elected leaders, holding public hearings about fixing a national problem. Bringing in experts. Listening to ideas. Providing a forum for debate and discussion. All in the service of writing and perhaps even passing legislation intended to help people facing problems obtaining or affording health insurance.

It makes so much sense it doesn’t seem possible.

But this seems to be real news: the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will hold actual hearings on health care next month, focused on trying to find ways to stabilize insurance markets and bring down costs.

Washington’s Patty Murray announced the plan Tuesday with Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who has been Murray’s partner in bipartisanship in the past. Alexander is the committee chairman, and Murray is the ranking Democrat.

Murray said Tuesday in an interview that the plan marked a turn away from the repeal-first mentality.

“That discussion is over,” she said, later adding, “We’re not going to repeal Obamacare, we’re not going to cut people off Medicaid, we’re not going to just cut taxes for the wealthy. We’re going to focus on some of the real issues facing the marketplaces.”

Starting Sept. 4, the HELP committee will gather testimony from governors, insurers, state insurance commissioners and others, in an effort to identify and try to combat the instability in the individual insurance markets. One key reason for this instability has been the very efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act itself, Murray said.

Another has been President Trump’s threat to withhold the cost-sharing-reduction payments to insurance companies that are meant to help offset the expense of insuring some lower-income Americans. Trump has threatened to withhold the payments, as a way of speeding the demise of ACA markets.

Members of Congress, including Republicans, have encouraged Trump not to do this, and Murray said it’s possible that legislation forcing him to make the payments would be drafted.

“If he’s not (making the payments) then we can say, all right you need tougher legislation and here it comes,” she said.

There’s plenty of reason to keep expectations in check for this process, starting with the intense divisions among the majority party in Congress – who often seemed to be arguing over whether their proposals would be harmful to enough Americans – and including a president who has treated health care as an idea-free Twitter cudgel. Repeal efforts crashed spectacularly last week, and many Republicans in Congress are now saying that it’s time to move on.

The spectacle in the House, and then the Senate, has been appalling: Virtually no public process. No hearings. Legislation appearing hours before votes. Cloakroom deals, napkin-written notions and public utterances that set new standards for political dishonesty.

Time and again, Republican members of Congress asserted that their proposals would not do what they clearly would have done: Uninsure people, drive up costs, allow junk policies back on the market, hurt people with pre-existing conditions coverage …

All of these criticisms were plainly so, and Republicans simply denied them, with straight faces.

From go, the opposition to the Affordable Care Act has been a circus of half-truths and no-truths and obfuscation and skullduggery – all set to a recent soundtrack of idiotic presidential tweets that treat health care like a political spitting contest.

In that context, what are the chances the Senate hearings can produce results?

Murray says she’s hopeful. She has an impressive record of navigating difficult partisan waters, including working closely with Alexander on a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015 and with then-Rep. Paul Ryan, who’s now the House Speaker, on a budget deal in 2013.

Still, as she said, “Anybody who thinks health care policy is easy, to quote the president, doesn’t know anything.”

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