Democratic Senators to GOP: Stand Up for Patients

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By Victoria Pelham

Democratic senators joined cancer patients and advocates from the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and other patient groups June 27 to urge lawmakers to pursue bipartisan health-care fixes that would protect patients.

At a press conference on Capitol Hill, they warned the Senate Better Care Reconciliation Act, tabled until after the July 4 recess, would move the health-care system backward, making health care more expensive and limiting safety-net access for the most vulnerable through Medicaid cuts. And they called it a political measure, not a health-care one—one that would have long-term, potentially irrevocable consequences if passed.

“What we need is a bipartisan effort to fill the holes, make health-care more affordable, more efficient and transparent,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said. “None of us knows what health situation we’re going to have in our lives, and we should design a health-care system that anticipates that and doesn’t treat us as winners or losers.”

“This is not about politics for people in this country,” he added. “It’s about having a health-care system that actually works for people.”

Medicaid a `Critical Bridge’

Two months after Laurie Merges-Jett, of Ohio, lost her job in a corporate down-size, the then-single mother learned of her stage 3-B breast cancer, an invasive tumor that would take at least 18 months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries to treat. She was told to postpone her job search because of the intensity of her new care regimen. Uninsured with three young children, she could have been left without any options—but instead learned she qualified for Medicaid under the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Without it, Merges-Jett said her cancer treatments would have been prohibitively expensive, and her children might have had to grow up without a mother.

“Having access to Medicaid saved my life,” she said.

“Medicaid was a critical bridge that gave me coverage and saw me through diagnosis and active treatment.”

She urged lawmakers to truly consider the implications of the BCRA health-care plan, which would wind down the expansion over three years or possibly lift protections for patients like herself through state waivers.

The Senate’s proposal would also cap federal spending on the Medicaid safety net by locking in states to either per-enrollee or per-group dollar ceilings, adjusted for growth each year. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that these ceilings, coupled with the end of the expansion that covered at least 11 million new Americans, would decrease Medicaid enrollment by 16 percent over the next decade and take $772 billion out of the program.

Other patients, who faced stage 4 lung cancer and a blood-clotting condition, urged lawmakers to understand that stripping them of Medicaid coverage is a “life or death situation.”

“We’re dealing with a health-care bill that’s a wreck,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said.

If the plan passes as is, people would still need health care but would have to access it as uncompensated care—forcing hospitals in small communities in his state and across the country to shoulder the cost and either change their delivery or shutter.

“If you lose the hospital, the town’s gone; there’s no hope for it,” Tester said.

The cuts to Medicaid would further harm the opioid crisis, Bennet added, while the wealthy are granted tax cuts, instead of addressing health-care fixes people truly want.

There’s room for improvement in the Affordable Care Act, he added, but this bill doesn’t deserve the Senate floor, he said.

This is the “most important” issue the Senate has tackled in his time in office, Tester added.

Patients Versus Politics

While the lawmakers pushed for colleagues on both sides of the aisle to come to the table, the politics of the bill were on full display June 27.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters the Senate’s plan would basically extend to other states the chance to do what Florida had already done under its waivers.

“Our initial indications are this by and large not only allows Florida to continue doing what it’s doing now, it could potentially increase the amount of money that’s going toward the Florida Medicaid program,” he said.

It would be a small increase, he said, and he understands not every state is in that position.

The bill also gives lawmakers “some level of certainty,” easing fears about protections for seniors and people with specific needs such as long-term care, he said.

A slew of Republicans officially came out against the proposal as it stood late June 27, after the Senate decided to postpone a vote.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in a statement praised “promising” overhauls for lowering premiums but said he had “real concerns” about the Senate bill’s Medicaid provisions while Ohio is in the middle of the opioid epidemic.

“For months, I have engaged with my colleagues on solutions that I believe are necessary to ensure that we improve our health-care system and better combat this opioid epidemic,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Senate draft falls short and therefore I cannot support it in its current form.”

Another lawmaker, Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), called the ACA broken but said she recognized the role Medicaid expansion had played in coverage in her state and substance abuse treatment. She called the BCRA “not the right fix.”

“As drafted, this bill will not ensure access to affordable health care in West Virginia, does not do enough to combat the opioid epidemic that is devastating my state, cuts traditional Medicaid too deeply, and harms rural health care providers,” she said in the joint statement.

With assistance from Lillianna Byington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Victoria Pelham in Washington at vpelham@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at bbroderick@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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