Two Republican senators are working on legislation that would let states decide whether they want to keep Obamacare or move to a different system. Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine both hinted on the Senate floor Tuesday about a bill that would preserve Obamacare, but only for states that choose to keep it. Cassidy said the bill would be essentially the same as a bill he introduced in the last Congress called the Patients Freedom Act. It lets states decide if they want to stay in Obamacare if it is working or leave. “The state could go with the alternative, which we will lay out, the state could opt for nothing — no Medicaid expansion and no help for lower-income folks — or the state could opt to stay in Obamacare,” Cassidy said.

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Donald Trump’s pledge to “repeal and replace Obamacare” was one of his biggest crowd pleasers. Moving forward on his broad replacement themes—expanding health savings accounts (HSAs) and state flexibility—could lead to some surprising and intriguing reforms.

During the campaign, Trump supported the familiar Republican themes of tax-free HSAs and allowing families to deduct health insurance premiums in their tax-returns. He pledged that “we must also make sure that no one slips through the cracks simply because they cannot afford [health] insurance.” This opens the door to a serious and conceivably bipartisan discussion about how to replace the complex structure of ACA subsidies and tax breaks.

In addition to redesigning subsidies, another element is an expanded role for states. The familiar Republican call to take the federal money for Medicaid expansion as a block grant and turn it into subsidies for families to buy private coverage has received plenty of the attention. But the broader theme of giving states much greater flexibility could become a different pathway to the goal of affordable and adequate health coverage for all.

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“As Republicans try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they should be reminded every day that 36,000 people will die yearly as a result.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), in a tweet, Jan. 12, 2017

Sanders has tweeted as a definite fact an estimate that a) assumes Republicans will gut Obamacare without a replacement b) assumes the worst possible impact from that policy and c) assumes that data derived from the Massachusetts experience can be applied across the United States.

Those are three very big assumptions. Take away any one of them, and Sanders’s claim that repeal of the law will cause 36,000 people to die a year falls apart.

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This morning, the Congressional Budget Office released a report arguing that the partial repeal of Obamacare being contemplated by Republicans would wildly increase the number of people without health insurance, in ways that are difficult to understand. Here are four problems with the CBO’s analysis.

1. The CBO’s estimates assume no Obamacare replacement

2. The CBO massively overestimates the impact of Obamacare’s individual mandate

3. The GOP repeal bill is likely to treat Medicaid differently than the CBO does

4. CBO’s 2010 estimates of Obamacare’s coverage expansion were off by more than 10 million

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A spokesman for Donald Trump sought Monday to elaborate on the president-elect’s plans to replace the Affordable Care Act, vowing that the new administration would lower health-care costs by infusing more competition into the marketplace, including by allowing insurers to sell health plans across state lines.

Trump’s goal is “to get insurance for everybody through marketplace solutions, through bringing costs down, through negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, allowing competition over state lines,” Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

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It’s clear that whatever replaces Obamacare must focus on quality and incremental local solutions, not one-size-fits-all government mandates.

In this respect, the federal government’s biggest task for replacing Obamacare is to get out of the way and let state policymakers and health care providers innovate.

First off, let’s get clear what Americans want: They’d like many choices of affordable health insurance plans that allow them to choose their doctors. They want to buy a plan when they are young, then keep their plan from job to job and into retirement. And they’d like it to be truly affordable. These “must haves” are obvious to people of any political orientation.

Instead of approaching this challenge like designing a single system or product (the way Obamacare was constructed), Congress needs to help these conditions develop organically, while preserving freedom of choice for Americans.

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Late last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) told a group of senior GOP lawmakers that the person they needed to watch in the Senate in 2017 was Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth Warren?” one lawmaker asked.

“No,” Mr. Ryan replied, according to a lawmaker in the room, “Elizabeth, the Senate parliamentarian.”

Elizabeth MacDonough, the sixth person and first woman to hold the title of chief Senate parliamentarian, will play a crucial role in determining what can be included in legislation enabling the Senate to roll back major parts of the Affordable Care Act with just a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes usually needed.

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Health policy experts on both the left and the right need to take a deep breath and re-direct their collective energy to suggesting ways to improve the current regulatory environment.  No industry stakeholder can say with a straight-face that the individual health insurance markets are functional.  It is well-accepted that the markets are unbalanced.  And it is well-established that the unbalanced markets are resulting in financial losses for insurance companies and premium increases for consumers.

Is this the Republicans’ fault?  No.  Is it the Republicans’ problem?  Yes.  As a result, once portions of the ACA are repealed in the coming weeks, Republicans will undertake efforts to improve the current regulatory environment.  How?  First, it is likely that Congress will fund the “cost-sharing” reduction subsidies for 2017, 2018, and likely 2019.

Second, Congress and the Administration will attempt to stabilize the individual insurance markets by requiring pre-verification before a person can enroll in an ACA Exchange plan during a “special enrollment period”; changing the 90-day grace period in cases where a policyholder fails to pay their premiums; prohibiting 3rd parties from paying premiums on behalf of certain consumers; providing more flexibility for insurance companies under the Medical Loss Ratio rules; continuing payments under the “reinsurance” program for 2016 (not to be confused with the “risk corridor” program); fixing the “risk adjustment” formula; and modifying the age variant for developing premium rates from a 3-to-1 to a 5-to-1 ratio.  In addition, it is likely that funding will be provided to cover high-risk individuals – through high-risk pools or other means.

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President-elect Donald Trump said in a weekend interview that he is nearing completion of a plan to replace President Obama’s signature health-care law with the goal of “insurance for everybody,” while also vowing to force drug companies to negotiate directly with the government on prices in Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump declined to reveal specifics in the telephone interview late Saturday with The Washington Post, but any proposals from the incoming president would almost certainly dominate the Republican effort to overhaul federal health policy as he prepares to work with his party’s congressional majorities.

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Republicans have their best opportunity in a generation to enact a reform plan for health care that moves decisively toward a market-based approach, with far less reliance on federal regulation and control. A reform plan of this kind would represent a dramatic break from decades of policymaking and would be a major component of an effort to rein in the sprawling federal welfare state.

To succeed in this effort, however, House and Senate Republicans, as well as the incoming Trump administration, must dispense with wishful thinking. There is no plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that is without political controversy. Whatever they do will involve trade-offs, and in some cases they will be attacked by their political opponents for doing what is necessary but perhaps unpopular.
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