DENVER – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday pitched a public option health care measure as a bipartisan panel of senators he’s been part of announced it had reached a deal to fund insurer subsidies under the Affordable Care Act that President Trump has stopped paying for the time being.
Bennet had scheduled an informational call for Colorado journalists regarding his and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia’s “Medicare-X” measure, but the deal reached by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., took precedent on the call.
Bennet said he was “enormously gratified” the two senators, who lead the Senate’s health committee, had reached a deal.
Though it has yet to be finalized, Alexander and Murray said Tuesday that their measure would fund the cost-sharing reduction subsidies for insurers for another two years while also allowing states more flexibility to make changes to their insurance programs within the bounds of the ACA.
"This agreement avoids chaos. I don't know a Republican or Democrat who benefits from chaos," Sen. Alexander said.
Bennet said the measure was “entirely consistent” with what the senators on the committee had heard in testimony over the past several weeks, as the committee worked to craft a bipartisan solution to shore up the individual health insurance marketplace across the country.
The measure, if passed, would allow governors to apply for waivers under the ACA to make some changes in their states.
“It creates less bureaucracy and gives states the opportunity to innovate without compromising the essential health benefits,” Bennet said.
Though he said he wished the bill would give a longer window for the CSR payments than two years, he said the compromise was a good start, and that he was hopeful the bill would pass the Senate, House and president’s desk.
But he didn’t let President Trump off the hook for stopping the CSR payments, which led Colorado to revert to higher premium increases for 2018 that had been submitted by insurers of an average of 6 percent.
“This was a self-inflicted wound. This is not something ‘Obamacare’ caused, this was caused by the president ripping the CSRs away,” Bennet said. “We are in a bipartisan way putting it back together again [with Alexander-Murray]. This should never have been a problem.”
And Trump continued to puzzle, as he called the agreement “a very good solution,” while his legislative director just minutes later said he wanted to eliminate the ACA’s individual and employer mandates.
The bill, should it get enough support from both parties in the Senate, could also face defeat in the House, where conservatives were already scoffing at the measure, saying that they would only accept a full repeal of the federal health care law.
And Bennet did get time to discuss Medicare-X, which would allow people to buy into a “public option” plan modeled after Medicare on individual and small businesses exchanges.
The plan, if passed, would first benefit rural areas that currently have either zero or just one insurer operating in their county. Colorado has 14 of those on the Western Slope, which Bennet said was a major factor in his crafting of the bill.
“This is my attempt to respond to specific challenges I’ve heard about from Coloradans,” Bennet said.
He said the initial rollout to the rural counties would include plans that cover essential health benefits like maternity, newborn and pediatric care, that the plan “encourages innovations to increase access in rural areas” and will increase the use of telemedicine and remote patient monitoring.
The rural rollout would happen in 2020, and in 2023, the plan would be offered through the individual market. By 2024, it would be added to the Small Business Health Options Program exchange.
“I think this bill is a significant and practical step,” Bennet said, adding that he “couldn’t be more pleased” to have Sen. Kaine as a cosponsor, since Senate colleagues see him as a “constructive actor.”
He said that though Medicare-X would be modeled after Medicare, it would be a separate program supported by credits and subsidies already written into the ACA, as well as from premiums that people pay into the system.
“There was no reason to reinvent the wheel,” Bennet said. “With the same exact networks open to Medicare patients today, set up on Day 1, HHS wouldn’t need to spend time thinking about how to start a new network.”
And he said that his plan differs greatly from the single-payer plan being championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and some liberal Democrats.
While both aim for universal health care coverage—something Bennet says he hopes for—he said the vehicles to get there do many different things.
"They’re totally different…The way Bernie approaches it is by creating a single-payer system where we’re all in the same system,” Bennet said. “That would take away insurance from 178 million people insured today by their employer, 80 percent of whom say they like their insurance.”
“Instead, this creates a public option, not single-payer, and gives people the choice if they want insurance other than private insurance,” Bennet continued. “This would imagine a system that exists side-by-side with employer-based insurance.”
Still, Bennet acknowledged his plan faces an uphill battle because of some Republicans who still want to repeal the ACA, and some Democrats who will only settle for single-payer.
“We’re in a moment still where people want to re-litigate,” he said.
But he said, in addition to the Alexander-Murray developments, that he was hopeful a bipartisan solution was in the works for the future.
“I have no doubt, in time, that people will see this as a useful and constructive proposal that will lead to a bipartisan solution."