Alexander, Corker hold off on full-throated endorsement of Senate GOP health care plan

Staff file photos / U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, left, praised much of Senate Republican leaders' newly released health care bill, but joined with fellow Tennessee republican Sen. Bob Corker, right, in withholding full support for the time being.

NASHVILLE - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander today praised much of Senate Republican leaders' newly released "discussion draft" health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare but joined with fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker in withholding full support for now pending more review.

"To begin with, the draft ... makes no change in the law protecting people with pre-existing conditions, no change in Medicare benefits, and increases Medicaid funding- that's TennCare-at the rate of inflation," Alexander said in a video-taped statement.

But after listing numerous aspects of the draft that he likes, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said he nonetheless "will see what it costs when the Congressional Budget Office gives its report.

"Then, I'm going to stay focused on it next week as the bill goes to the Senate floor - where it will be subject to virtually unlimited amendments - and my focus will be on how does it affect Tennesseans," Alexander said.

Corker, meanwhile, said that under the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, "families in Tennessee and across our country face rising costs and have limited choice."

Congress, Corker said, "has a responsibility to resolve these issues and stabilize the individual insurance market, and over the next several days, I will take time to fully review the legislative text and seek input from a wide range of stakeholders across our state. I will make a final decision based on whether this legislation, on the whole, is better than what is in place today."

But critics are already denouncing the 142-page draft legislation, developed behind closed doors in which Alexander along with a dozen other GOP senators inititally played an important role before discussions widened to the entire 52-member Senate GOP Caucus, according to multiple news accounts.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told reporters this afternoon in a telephone conference that the Senate legislation is worse over the longer term than the controversial U.S. House GOP's previously approved bill.

The Senate GOP draft "will do more harm, to more Americans, than any other legislation in our nation's modern history," said Greenstein, singling out especially impacts on states' Medicaid programs for the poor, operated in Tennessee as TennCare.

Starting in 2020, the Senate proposal would limit federal dollars states get. Currently, it's open ended with states getting federal matching dollars to cover eligible enrollees and procedures.

The House plan is already estimated to cut Tennessee's share of federal funds by a half billion a year with set amounts per person, according to some analysts. But Greenstein said the GOP Senate draft is even more "draconian" because after year 10 the measurement of inflation will shift to the Consumer Price Index whereas medical inflation is substantially higher.

As a result, Greenstein said, "the Senate bill over time, I'm afraid, goes in a substantial way in hitting the program so hard to be almost destroying it."

States like Tennessee will be forced into making "massive cuts" and/or eliminating some coverage areas, he warned.

Tennessee has nearly 1.5 million people on TennCare. Unlike a number of other states, Tennessee never took advantage of a Medicaid expansion largely funded by the federal government. That is going away over time under the GOP overhaul but has no impact on Tennesseans.

An estimated 234,000 Tennesseans with no employer health insurance have signed up this year for federally subsized insurance on the Obamacare exchange. The Senate bill keeps former President Barack Obama's premium subsidies structure but in 2020 begins tightening eligibility criteria.

As a result, fewer middle class folks would get assistance, but it incorporates age, income and geographical area. Alexander noted that it will offer health care coverage to an estimated 162,000 Tennesseans earning less than $12,000 a year, who now get nothing on the exchanges.

Unlike the House GOP bill, the Senate version does not tinker with pre-existing coverage.

But the Democratic National Committee and other critics charged it will still hurt people with pre-existing conditions because it allows states to permit insurers to apply for federal waivers to scale back on the mandated essential benefits package in Obamacare.

"The bill will allow insurers to offer watered down plans by allowing states to opt out of providing essential health benefits, which cover services like maternity care, substance abuse treatment and mental health care, as well as other protections that guarantee quality, affordable coverage," the DNC said in a news release.