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Senate Panel To Probe How To Bring Stability To Health Insurance Market

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It turns out not all Republicans think they should let the Affordable Care Act implode. That was President Trump's advice to lawmakers after the Senate failed to repeal Obamacare last week. Instead, there are signs of bipartisanship. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander has organized bipartisan hearings next month aimed at preventing a so-called death spiral on the health insurance market next year. Senators are concerned about President Trump's threat to withhold subsidies that help pay for the health care of low-income Americans. Here is what President Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said on CNN last weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICK MULVANEY: The president's attitude is fairly simple. If people are suffering, and they are, and you - and they will continue to suffer because we have not repealed or replaced Obamacare, why shouldn't insurance companies similarly suffer?

GREENE: Senator Maggie Hassen of New Hampshire is a Democrat who sits on the health committee and joins us on the line. Good morning, Senator.

MAGGIE HASSAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me, David.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on. So are we seeing an outbreak of bipartisanship in Washington?

HASSAN: Well, I'm really encouraged that the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee on which I serve is going to hold bipartisan hearings on how to bring stability to the health insurance markets. Certainly, you know, when I was governor of New Hampshire, we reached across the party aisle and found a way to build a bipartisan Medicaid expansion program. And it's really critical right now that we continue to work to ways on lowering costs for all Americans. It's really important that the Trump administration drop its efforts to sabotage the health insurance markets, especially as Republicans and Democrats are working together to make improvements.

GREENE: And you're talking about the subsidies that the president's threatened to cut there, right?

HASSAN: That's right. Just as you covered, yeah.

GREENE: Well, I do want to ask you about those because it's - the president's threatening to cut those subsidies. These are subsidies to insurance companies that help lower - cover lower-income people. Is there really agreement among Republicans and Democrats on your committee right now to protect those subsidies?

HASSAN: Well, what we're going to focus on in these hearings is our joint concern that we need to lower costs for the American people. And certainly, what we're hearing from insurers is that with the uncertainty that these threats by the administration are causing, that they are increasing their premium prices as a result.

There are other things that we've also been focusing on, a number of proposals, including a bill I introduced with Senator Shaheen to help lower those health insurance premiums by ensuring the cost-sharing reduction payments. That helps lower out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles and co-pays. And we also know that there is more we can do in terms of lowering prescription drug costs and addressing the so-called income cliff in the bill.

GREENE: Sounds like you're not just talking about these subsidies. I mean, this is a - this is going to be a larger conversation about the Affordable Care Act and where to go from here. But I just do want to ask you, you know, President Trump when referring to these subsidies has used the term bailout. And I wonder if there is - might be some truth to this. If there is some flaw in the system as it is now, is there some other better way you might come up with in a bipartisan fashion to cover lower-income people without having government subsidies go to insurance companies?

HASSAN: Well, look. I - we are going to have these bipartisan hearings to get all ideas from all corners on the table. That's what good bipartisan hearings do. I'm looking forward to that. If there are ideas other than cost-sharing reductions in the long term, certainly open to hearing that. But what we know right now is that we have a system that anticipated that these cost-sharing reductions would be made. They're in the original law. That's the way the insurance industry has been pricing its premiums with the understanding that that would help keep premium costs for middle income and working families lower.

And right now, the uncertainty that the Trump administration's threats is causing is driving those prices up for families all across our country. So it's really important that the administration stop taking these actions that are destabilizing the market. Uncertainty drives costs up. And then we need to continue our discussion about how we can build on and improve the Affordable Care Act and the health care system that we have. We've got to lower prescription drug costs. And we've got to lower costs overall.

GREENE: When it comes to continuing that discussion, let me just ask you, I mean, Senator Bernie Sanders not so long ago almost sounded mocking of Republican efforts to, you know, repeal, replace the Affordable Care Act. He used slogans like make America sick again. And he whipped up a lot of support among, you know, Democratic voters. Are you really - are you and the party really ready to compromise and say, you know, maybe the Affordable Care Act is flawed in many ways, let's all sit down and talk about how to find something better?

HASSAN: I think you've been hearing us say that for a long time. I took office on January 3. And since that time, Democrats have been saying that we would like to be included in a bipartisan process, that we have ideas and we want to hear the ideas from others. We have sponsored bills. We've been on the Senate floor talking about ways we can shore up the Affordable Care Act to improve it and improve our health care system overall, including focusing on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is one of the other big cost drivers right now. So we are very interested in working with our colleagues and looking forward to it.

GREENE: That's New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. Thank you.

HASSAN: Thank you very much for having me. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.