Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski could once again be a deciding vote on the future of health care. (Senate photo)
Published September 20, 2017
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
You have to wonder why the latest Senate Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act did not get written with one senator in mind, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Yet the bill by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is more conservative than previous approaches. It has lots of wish-list boxes to tick, no money for Planned Parenthood, big tax cuts, and its spends way fewer federal dollars. The bill only needs 50 votes to pass but that must happen before the end of this month.
Medicaid would become a block grant program that states could design (and pay for). So it would likely disappear. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that federal funding for health care would be reduced by $299 billion in 2027 alone with cuts impacting all states. And here’s a fun fact: Big states that expanded Medicaid would be hit harder. A lot harder.
Why 2027? That’s the year block grants disappear. Graham and Cassidy argue that only a temporary block grant would be allowed under the rules of debate. So no “new” thing. Congress would have to meet “pay for” standards to replace that after 2027; meaning there would be cuts in other federal programs equal to the new spending.
And, like other Republican plans, this one would add significantly to the ranks of the uninsured. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates 32 million would lose coverage. States could also end essential benefits, coverage of pre-existing conditions, and allow companies to charge people significantly more when they’re ill. (Health insurance coverage that you cannot afford is the same as no insurance.)
“Like the earlier version of the Cassidy-Graham plan, the revised plan would disproportionately harm certain states. The block grant would not only cut overall funding for the Medicaid expansion and marketplace subsidies but also, starting in 2021, redistribute the reduced federal funding across states, based on their share of low-income residents rather than their actual spending needs. In general, over time, the plan would punish states that have adopted the Medicaid expansion or been more successful at enrolling low- and moderate-income people in marketplace coverage under the ACA,” the CBPP reports. So by 2026, the “20 states facing the largest funding cuts in percentage terms would be Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. These states’ block grant funding would be anywhere from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent below what they would receive in federal Medicaid expansion and/or marketplace subsidy funding under current law.”
A lot to like in Alaska, right? Murkowski said she is undecided until she sees the Congressional Budget Office assessment. She told CNN: “I will use the governor’s words,” Murkowski said, referring to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. “He said, ‘I understand that a block grant gives me increased flexibility, but if I don’t have the dollars to help implement the flexibility, that doesn’t help us much.’ So, we are both trying to figure out how those dollars fall.”
Graham-Cassidy plan continues the 100 percent reimbursement to states for patients served by the Indian Health Service and it adds an increase in the federal match to 100 percent for medical assistance provided by non-Indian Health Service providers for tribal enrollees. The idea is more American Indians and Alaska Natives should take their business away from IHS facilities. Let’s be clear about this: It would drain resources away from the Indian health system.
This bill would also allow tribes to set up group plans to buy insurance for tribal members to replace the Medicaid expansion. “Creates new optional coverage group as of January 1, 2020 for members of Indian tribes up to 138% FPL in states that had expanded coverage as of December 31, 2019, who were enrolled in Medicaid as of December 31, 2019, and do not have a break in eligibility of 6 months (or a longer period specified by the state).”
So in summary this bill would not add any new resources to the Indian health system. But it would cut funding significantly (again, remember Medicaid).
The last Senate Republican plan failed by a single vote. It’s likely that Arizona Sen. John McCain will end up being a “yes” this time around (the state’s governor is giving him cover, saying it’s a good plan). However Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says he’s now a “no.” In his mind this plan does not repeal the Affordable Care Act. Susan Collins remains a likely “no.” If those positions stay the same, then this bill’s fate could end up being decided by Senator Murkowski.
Is there anything in this legislative gem that improves health care in Alaska? No. Does it improve the Alaska Native medical system? No. The Indian Health Service? No. Then why is she even considering this vote. It should be an easy no. Again.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports