Here we go again. Another week and the United States Senate is ready to vote on legislation to remake the entire healthcare system, including Indian health. The Senate will do this without a draft circulated for debate, public hearings, or common sense.
So what does the replacement bill look like at this point? I have no clue. Neither do the 100 senators who will make that call. As Sen. John Cornyn (one of the managers for the bill) put it: Knowing the healthcare plan ahead of the vote is a “luxury we don’t have.”
Here is what President Donald J. Trump tweeted over the weekend: “The Republican Senators must step up to the plate and, after 7 years, vote to Repeal and Replace. Next, Tax Reform and Infrastructure. WIN!”
So there will be a vote on legislation to at least repeal the Affordable Care Act. “We have decided to hold the vote to open debate on Obamacare repeal early next week. The Obamacare repeal legislation will ensure a stable, two-year transition period, which will allow us to wipe the slate clean and start over with real patient-centered healthcare reform. This is the same legislation that a majority of the Senate voted to send to the president in 2015. Now, we thankfully have a president in office who will sign it. So we should send it to him,” said Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
But a straight repeal is complicated by Senate rules. The Senate Majority Leader is relying on the process of reconciliation (essentially matching the legislation to an existing budget) because that only requires a majority, or 50 votes. Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster. Last week the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said that defunding of Planned Parenthood, abortion coverage, and restrictions on insurance coverage does not meet that test and still required 60 voters. Same thing for the Alaska or rural exception, it’s a no go. But Senate Republicans were quick to say that any draft language (which is still missing from action) could be rewritten. Or Republicans could overrule the parliamentarian on the floor which would cause all sorts of future problems governing.
The Senate’s parliamentarian is a great example of the institutions of Congress pushing back on the Republican proposals. I don’t think it’s ideology; it’s incompetence. (As I have written before there is a conservative approach to healthcare reform, but we have not seen that yet.) The Congressional Budget Office said last week that the big ticket in this debate is Medicaid. Remember the proposals in the House and Senate go far beyond just repealing the Affordable Care Act because the proposals would fundamentally restructure Medicaid.
According to CBO: “By 2026, spending for that program would be reduced by 26 percent … About three-quarters of that reduction would result from scaling back the expansion of eligibility enacted in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In 2026, for people who are made newly eligible under the ACA (certain adults under the age of 65 whose income is less than or equal to 138 percent of the federal poverty level [FPL]), Medicaid spending would be reduced by 87 percent, from $134 billion to $17 billion—mainly because the penalty associated with the individual mandate would be repealed and the enhanced federal matching rate for spending on that group would be phased out. As a result of the reduced matching rate, some states would roll back their expansion of eligibility and others that would have expanded eligibility under current law would choose not to do so. All other federal spending on Medicaid in that year would be reduced by 9 percent, from $490 billion to $447 billion.”
This is what pays for the tax cuts in the Republican plans.
Rolling back Medicaid expansion and the traditional Medicaid program would significantly reduce funding for the Indian Health Service.
Last week the National Indian Health Board, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Council of Urban Indian Health, wrote McConnell because one of the Senate bills, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, would change the formula for funding Indian health patients. The three intertribal organizations call the proposal a “radical departure from over 40 years of federal policy” and it “should not be undertaken without nationwide tribal consultation.” The bill’s language reverses a policy where states get a 100 percent reimbursement for patients who get services from the Indian health system. This change, the intertribal organizations said, would “ take away this unique incentive for states to work with tribes to create Medicaid innovations that best support the Indian health system.” States could create new rules that could ignore Indian health as a partner and create new barriers that would sharply reduce funding.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, who is chair of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, said the changes would provide “more choice and competition in our health care system, while at the same time insuring that low-income individuals have access to healthcare coverage” via Medicaid or tax credits.
The key thing here: Native Americans could take their insurance (and the state Medicaid dollars) to another provider, reducing funding for IHS. (Competition, you know.)
It would be one more costly strike to an Indian health system that’s already underfunded.
Hoeven said a draft Senate bill also would end the requirement that tribes purchase insurance for employees. Again, the result would be less money for the Indian health system. (And, as the three intertribal organizations point out, this would be done without any tribal consultation.)
Then again the Senate and House bills are designed to strip money from the health system period. And Medicaid is such a rich target. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the total cost to states under the Better Care bill is $519 billion.
Back to the math and this week’s vote. There are 100 members of the Senate. The 48 Democrats are certain to vote no. And of the 52 Republicans, it’s unlikely Sen. John McCain would leave his cancer treatment in Arizona to vote on a motion to proceed (the opening of the debate and the consideration of amendments). That leaves 51 votes. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is a certain no because she objects to the attacks on Medicaid. That reduces the number to 50 (and 49 no votes). There are lots of questions about Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Capito tweeted: “I will only vote to proceed to repeal legislation if I am confident there is a replacement plan that addresses my concerns.” And Portman said he’ll review whatever bill comes up for a vote. Murkowksi told CNN: “I don’t think it’s asking too much to say give us the time to fairly and critically analyze these numbers. And if you say, well, CBO numbers don’t matter, let’s look at the numbers that you don’t think matter. But it really does make a difference. And these numbers that we’re talking about, these are men and women, these are our families that are being impacted. So let’s please get it right.”
Does that sound like three no votes? Right now, I’d only count all three as firm maybes. Then only one needs to be the no.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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