Sohn: Sen. Alexander gets a high five and a plea

Sohn: Sen. Alexander gets a high five and a plea

September 13th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., confer as state insurance commissioners appear last week before the Senate health committee about ways to stabilize the federal health law. on Capitol Hill in Washington last week. Alexander said Wednesday that he hoped the panel would soon reach a consensus to stabilize health insurance markets and prevent prices from skyrocketing next year under the Affordable Care Act. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)


Bipartisan politics in Washington seems to be in vogue again.

Apparently that's what happens when Republicans realize that they can't repeal Obamacare because they have no plan to replace it and still offer millions of working Americans affordable health insurance.

So suddenly President Trump is chummy with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Democrats from California and New York, respectively, and makes a deal to get disaster recovery funds, continue government spending as it is until Dec. 8 and suspend the debt ceiling until the same date.

Across the way in congressional hearing rooms, our own Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is making bipartisan noises, too. He's holding hearings in the name of saving, or at least fixing, Obamacare — the same Affordable Care Act that he voted to repeal time after time over the past seven or eight years.

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But at 77 and as the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, Alexander seems to have found his better angels.

In the words of The New York Times, Alexander is a Republican senator "on a mission to rescue the health care law."

Maybe. Let's hope so.

But the devil is in the details.

In an op-ed by Sen. Alexander (see today's Free-Press editorial page), our former governor and two-time presidential candidate puts a GOP spin on the long-held Democratic view that Obamacare just needs some fixes. Alexander advocates amending a section in the current law so states can have "more flexibility to devise ways to provide more choices of insurance and lower costs." He also advocates funding cost-sharing payments through the end of 2018.

But what exactly does more flexibility mean? Does it mean giving states the right to drop important protections like insisting that insurers continue to cover people with pre-existing conditions?

That's what the failed GOP replacement bills — which Alexander helped author in secret GOP panel meetings — would have done. Republicans argued that the replacement bills would retain the ban on insurers not covering pre-existing conditions. But those same bills gave states the "flexibility" to allow insurers to charge more to aging customers or customers with pre-existing conditions. If a 60-year-old cancer survivor making $35,000 a year is charged $10,000 or $15,000 a year for insurance, that pre-existing condition likely won't get covered because groceries are more important.

That bottom line would be flexible — for the insurance companies.

Gordon Bonnyman with the Tennessee Justice Center says that advocating flexibility but not doing away with the guardrails of coverage for pre-existing conditions "sounds like an oxymoron, to me."

But like us, Bonnyman congratulates and thanks Alexander for making the bipartisan effort and for holding hearings to get input from governors, state health officials, hospitals, insurers and others — hopefully even from customers and patients.

In his op-ed, Alexander writes: "Health insurance has been a very partisan topic for a very long time, but the bottom line today is that 18 million Americans — including 350,000 Tennesseans — need our help. And I hope senators can work together — as we have in the past — and stay focused on getting a result."

We hope so, too, senator, and we cheer you on to a true statesmanlike solution that helps all Tennesseans have affordable health insurance.

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