Colorado's officials ponder next moves on health care after failure of Graham-Cassidy

Bennet, Hickenlooper want return to bipartisanship
Posted at 8:42 PM, Sep 26, 2017

DENVER – After the latest Senate Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act died before being brought to the floor Tuesday, Colorado’s senators and governor were quickly back to offering more solutions to fix some of the issues with the federal health care law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced at a weekly lunch with Republican leadership that he wouldn’t bring the Graham-Cassidy measure to the floor for a vote because his party was short.

Pulling Graham-Cassidy means that Republicans’ latest six-month effort to repeal President Obama’s signature law is again dead for the time being, as a window for them to pass a measure with only 51 votes in the Senate closes on Sept. 30.

But it was clear Tuesday that though this effort has failed, Colorado leaders won’t soon forget that rising premiums in the state and market instability need to be addressed.

Bennet: "If you’re not going to repeal it, you better be part of fixing it."

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., welcomed the defeat of Graham-Cassidy, but implored his Senate colleagues to reconsider bipartisan health care talks undertaken in the Senate’s HELP committee that he’s been a part of.

“You should not hold the position that if you fail to repeal, you can’t fix it. If you’re going to repeal it, repeal it. And I think we know where that’s gone. And if you’re not going to repeal it, you better be part of fixing it, or you’re going to own the problem,” Sen. Bennet said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

“There are a lot of people on this side that want to address that issue, and I believe there are a lot of Republicans that want to address that issue,” Bennet continued. “And we’re now out of excuses for why we can’t do it, because Graham-Cassidy has been pulled as it should have been. Because that bill…would have actually made [the insurance system] worse.”

He also took the opportunity to take a dig at his Republican colleagues after their latest failure to repeal the ACA, better known as Obamacare.

“After seven years of saying, ‘Repeal, repeal, repeal,’ and some years of saying, ‘Repeal and replace’…we have now wasted seven months of the American people’s time on an entirely partisan effort to try and pass two bills that could not have been more unresponsive to the critics of Obamacare in Colorado, to say nothing of the supporters,” Bennet added. “So it’s not a surprise to me that the last attempt failed, and it’s not a surprise to me that people weren’t even going to vote on this bill because it’s such a terrible bill that they didn’t want to vote on it.”

And he again noted, as he has in the past, that he believes the ACA needs to be fixed.

“[Republicans] have withdrawn it, which is good for the American people, except that the people in Colorado are still facing challenges in health care, including challenges from the Affordable Care Act. There, I said it. I voted for it. There are things we should fix."

And he said that the Senate should get back to work on the Alexander-Murray measure, as he told Denver7 he’d like to see happen in an interview last Friday.

“Fortunately, there is a solution that is being worked on not in the finance committee, but in the health, education and labor committee. And the two leaders of that committee, Lamar Alexander who’s the Republican chair, and Patty Murray who’s the Democratic ranking member, are among two of the finest legislators in this body,” Bennet said. “Time after time after time, even when Washington has not worked, they have managed to lead that committee to what Lamar Alexander refers to as a result.”

Much of the work in the HELP committee has gone toward stabilizing the individual market for health insurance, which covers less than 10 percent of the American people.

Hickenlooper, like Bennet, wants return to bipartisan talks

In Colorado, premiums on the individual market are set to rise by an average of 27 percent in 2018.

And that’s exactly what Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was pushing after Graham-Cassidy’s failure was announced. He’s been on a crusade with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and a bipartisan team of governors to get Congress to address the pitfalls of the individual marketplace through bipartisan talks.

“We are relieved that the Senate has decided to put aside the flawed Graham-Cassidy bill that would have hurt hundreds of thousands of Coloradans,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement, before urging Congress to take up the Alexander-Murray talks again.

“We urge Senate leaders to return to regular order and support bipartisan work to improve our health care system. We encourage Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray to return to the negotiating table and quickly finalize a package to stabilize the individual insurance market and help make individual health insurance more affordable. We stand ready to work with Congress and expand our scope to address the underlying drivers of health care costs."

Gardner wants another delay of Obamacare tax on insurers

Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., never had to take an official stance on Graham-Cassidy—something he’s avoided doing throughout the Republican effort to find a repeal bill the GOP caucus could support.

He’d only ever tipped his hand as to how he might vote when votes were actually cast, and he supported the repeal efforts that were voted on.

But he did offer a new solution, of sorts, of his own, when he threw his weight behind another measure to delay the Health Insurance Tax that was created by the ACA for another year. The tax was delayed this year to try and keep insurance premiums down after Congress acted in 2015.

A study released in August said that the tax would raise premiums by 2.6 percent nationwide next year, which would lead to increases of at least $158 per person in 2018.

The study also said that some premiums could go up by thousands of dollars by 2026 under the Health Insurance Tax, as insurers pass along the tax to those buying their packages.

The tax was written to tax insurers on the basis of their market share of coverage, but most analysis says the companies don’t eat the tax, but rather raise premium rates to cover it.

“My legislation delays a tax that once implemented would lead to even higher costs of care for Coloradans,” Gardner said in a statement. “This tax is just another example of how that’s not even close to being reality.”

Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn, both Republicans, are cosponsoring the legislation.

When the tax was delayed this year in a 2015 vote, Colorado’s members of Congress voted in a mixed bag. 

Voting in favor of the delay were Sens. Bennet and Gardner, Rep. Mike Coffman (R), Rep. Diana DeGette (D) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D). Reps. Jared Polis (D), Lamborn, Tipton and Ken Buck (R) voted against the delay, which was packaged in with a military and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.

Wednesday is the deadline for insurers to finalize their 2018 premium rates nationwide.

There is still uncertainty as to whether the Trump administration will continue to make cost-sharing reduction payments that Colorado’s insurance commissioner and proponents of Alexander-Murray say are crucial to keeping marketplaces stable.

Congress is expected to move onto tax reform as the next topic of discussion and action.