Despite being part of Senate health care work groups, Colorado's Cory Gardner still hasn't seen bill

Posted at 1:38 PM, Jun 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-21 20:11:25-04

DENVER – U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is one of a handful of Senate Republicans working in small groups to craft the Senate’s version of the American Health Care Act, said Wednesday he has still not seen a text version of the bill just a week before the full chamber is set to vote on it.

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Denver7 interview with Sen. Cory Gardner on health care bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday the text of the Senate’s version of the bill will likely be released Thursday, and that a vote on the bill is likely to happen before Congress goes on its July 4 holiday recess.

Stories released late Wednesday, after this story was first published, by The Washington Post and The Associated Press showed some details of the bill expected to be made public Thursday.

Gardner confirmed that he knew only what McConnell has so far said about the timing of the bill’s release and a vote.

“I have not [seen the bill’s text],” he told Denver7. “And what I’ve been told is a discussion draft will be released tomorrow, but I’ve not seen language or finalized language.”

He added that we’d have to “check with [McConnell’s] office for further clarification” on whether the vote will happen next week, something McConnell confirmed was the case Wednesday morning when he said that the American people would have “plenty of time” to read the bill, then saying that “everybody pretty well understands it” and will have an “adequate time” to look at the bill.

“I think this will be about as transparent as it could be,” McConnell said Wednesday. “No transparency would have been added by having hearings in which Democrats offered endless single-payer system amendments.”

Gardner talks about transparency, working group process

The lack of transparency involved in the bill-crafting process for the Senate’s health care bill has been the prime subject of discussion for weeks, and it’s something Gardner told Denver7 he’s fought for in recent days—months after he called for an open and transparent process.

“We’re having those discussions on the bill. I think it ought to be an open process, and I’d like to see an open, transparent process,” Gardner said.

He says that he brought up the issue in a working group on Tuesday.

“Just yesterday at the conference meeting, it was talked about—the need to have more time and transparency,” he said.

But he, as have many Republicans, pointed to the process when Democrats led the crafting of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, bringing up the unforgettable line from Nancy Pelosi, who said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

While Republicans have long interpreted that as meaning the bill was being crafted in secret, others have argued that with the extra context, she was saying that the full benefits of the bill wouldn’t be realized until after it was passed.

“I’m reminded of Nancy Pelosi, when she said, ‘We have to pass a bill to know what’s in the bill,’” Gardner said. “And I think Democrats, instead of being obstructionists in this, I hope they’ll be able to find common ground with Republicans so we can find a bipartisan solution.”

But the bill text for the Affordable Care Act was introduced in September 2009, posted online in October, when it passed the House for the first time, and there were hundreds of open hearings and Republican amendments offered before the final version again passed the House in March 2010. President Obama even addressed the full Congress during the bill’s crafting.

When asked what the difference was, for Gardner, during the crafting of this bill, Gardner retorted that there was “not a single Republican vote” in favor of the ACA, and pointed to what he called Democratic “obstruction” during the crafting of the current bill, despite Republicans holding the White House and both chambers of Congress.

“The only proposal that we’ve seen offered by Democrats is the [Sen. Bernie] Sanders solution, which is universal health care. What we ought to be doing instead of trying to push every into Medicaid—what we ought to be doing is trying to create an economy that has better-paying jobs, that has jobs with great benefits,” Gardner said.

When pressed further on why there isn’t transparency this time around, Gardner said, “I’m not arguing. I agree with you. There should be more discussion. There should be an open [process] – that’s what you and I are agreeing on.”

Adam Fox, of the nonpartisan Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said Wednesday, "They know if the public understands what this bill will do, they will run into very stiff opposition.  They're trying to keep it secret as long as possible before they take a vote, so that they don't have to deal with that backlash."

Gardner says he’s trying to include protections for Medicaid

As for his input on the bill, Gardner says he’s been focused on getting the bill’s writers to include protections should high-risk pools be implemented, and more protections for Medicaid recipients and stability in the insurance marketplaces.

“Yesterday there was a lot of talk and focus on the risk pools—making sure that we understood that if that’s the direction the legislation goes, what that means and how that can help,” Gardner said. “And I’ve talked about my concerns over a Medicaid transition—that if they pursue a Medicaid transition where the states take over the Medicaid program, to make sure the states have the full functionality, flexibility that they need in a transition period that is long enough for them to do it seamlessly.”

Gardner hails from a state that opted to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but we asked if he had been able to get through to some of his more-conservative colleagues in trying to include Medicaid protections—something the House-passed version slashed more than $800 billion from over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“Some are very, very open to it,” Gardner said. “Sen. [Rob] Portman, R-Ohio, and myself, we have our own little working group on Medicaid that we’ve been trying to help forge some policies and guide the discussion. So we’ll see as the bill progresses.”

Congressional Budget Office score expected by GOP ahead of vote

Gardner says that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is expected to score the Senate version before a vote, something McConnell has also said. But the CBO couldn’t score the House version in the two weeks the revised version was rushed through to a vote, so how would it score this version, we asked.

“So I think…what they’ve been doing—you’d have to ask McConnell’s office for that exact answer. What I think they’re doing is sending ideas or concepts to the Congressional Budget Office and getting a score as they send elements of the bill over. At least that’s what they said they’re doing,” Gardner said.

But is that enough time for Gardner to figure out what’s in the bill and support it, we asked.

“I mean we’ll obviously have to look at the Congressional Budget Office numbers. I want to talk to some of the private insurers to see what impact they believe it will have,” Gardner said. “Some of the ideas in the bill, the insurance companies believe they would be able to reduce their insurance rates as a result. But we have to have that information and need to have a better understanding of it.”

After the Wednesday morning interview, Gardner learned that the CBO score would likely be available "no later than Monday," a congressional staffer told Denver7.

Insurance rates have, on average, indeed risen nationally since the ACA was passed, and the promise that rates would be lower and that all people could keep their providers turned out to be misleading. Gardner says a lack of access is to blame, and says that’s what he hopes is fixed with the Senate bill.

“So what we have to address is the access, because you can have insurance but still not have access to utilize that insurance,” Gardner said, pointing out that hundreds of thousands of Coloradans lost insurance immediately after the ACA went into place.

However, at the same time, the uninsured rate in Colorado fell from about 15 percent to just over 6 percent in the six years since it took hold.

And on Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies confirmed that all of the insurance companies operating on Colorado’s marketplace in 2017 would again be operating in the state in 2018—quelling some fear that 14 western Colorado counties might lose their only insurance provider on the marketplace, Anthem.

What might force a ‘no’ vote on the bill from Gardner? What happens going forward?

Gardner has voted in line with President Donald Trump’s position 95 percent of the time so far, according to FiveThirtyEight, and as a “moderate” Republican, has the highest “Trump plus-minus” score of any member of Congress, meaning that he’s voted with the president more often that he was expected to.

So what might lead him to vote against the Senate’s bill, we asked.

“If it’s bad policy, I won’t support it. I need to see the legislation. I’m going to read the legislation and find out how it works,” Gardner said.

When pressed further on what he might consider “bad policy,” Gardner responded: “Well, if it’s something that doesn’t solve the problems of Obamacare.”

When asked to specify what that meant, Gardner said: “OK, so if it doesn’t work to reduce the cost of insurance; if it doesn’t create market stability; if it doesn’t create a sustainable path for Medicaid, that’s not going to be something that I can support.”

Gardner told The Denver Post Tuesday evening that Washington was “fundamentally broken” by partisanship, despite still laying blame on Democrats for the lack of hearings. He reiterated Wednesday that he’d like to work with Democrats.

“I hope that Democrats and Republicans can come together on health care, because right now you have a system in place that if the status quo of the Affordable Care Act is left in place, it will result in more people paying higher costs and fewer people having access to their insurance.”

But he also hinted that the Senate’s bill might not be the end-all for the Republican push to replace the Affordable Care Act.

“Because remember, even if the Senate passes a bill next week, there’s still the process of hammering out the difference between the House and the Senate, and then it comes back to the chambers for even more debate after that,” Gardner said.

He hinted that conference committees may have to end up finalizing the bill amid the back-and-forth structuring in the House and Senate.

“The other option is to see if the House will pass the Senate bill, and that can volley back and forth,” he said. “My guess is they’ll go to a conference committee, but I just don’t know.”

Gardner’s fellow senator from Colorado, Democrat Michael Bennet, has consistently slammed the Senate GOP’s process.

“Senate Republicans are so ashamed of health care bill, they won’t even share it with GOP colleagues—much less Dems or American people,” Bennet tweeted Tuesday night.

A day earlier, he said, “Even @POTUS said GOP health care bill is ‘mean.’ CO would be one of the states harmed most. So why are Republicans still trying to pass it.”

But despite the obvious antipathy for the bill from Democrats, Gardner said he will be committed to trying to get Democrats involved.

“So there’s even still more of this process,” he said. “So I hope in the meantime, there will be a decision to—instead of having just a partisan debate, that people will come together and work through these challenges.”