(Bloomberg) — The first major act of the unified Republican government in 2017 will be a vote in Congress to begin tearing down Obamacare.
But the euphoria of finally acting on a long-sought goal will quickly give way to the reality that Republicans — and President-elect Donald Trump — have no agreement thus far on how to replace coverage for about 20 million people who gained insurance under the health care law.
“They haven’t come to a consensus in the House and the Senate about the possible replacement plans,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist and former adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “They don’t know Point B.”
Republicans are debating how long to delay implementing the repeal. Aides involved in the deliberations said some parts of the law may be ended quickly, such as its regulations affecting insurer health plans and businesses. Other pieces may be maintained for up to three or four years, such as insurance subsidies and the Medicaid expansion. Some parts of the law may never be repealed, such as the provision letting people under age 26 remain on a parent’s plan.
House conservatives want a two-year fuse for the repeal. Republican leaders prefer at least three years, and there has been discussion of putting it off until after the 2020 elections, staffers said.
In the nearly seven years since the two laws that make up the Affordable Care Act package passed, dozens of comprehensive health care alternatives have been introduced, but none has gotten off the ground. The most developed plan so far is legislation by House Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, Trump’s nominee to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which he introduced in every Congress since 2009. It had 84 cosponsors in the House.
But that bill — centered on age-based refundable tax credits to buy insurance — didn’t receive a hearing in committee, nor was it included in Price’s budget that was adopted by the House last year.
The ACA includes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the health sections of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. Many of the earlier Republican Obamacare repeal bills and bill proposals called for repealing all of the ACA, but it’s not clear whether Republicans are still including the many ACA components unrelated to Medicaid and commercial health insurance, such as flu prevention programs and programs that help would-be health care workers pay for their education, in the term ‘Obamacare.’
If Republicans stick together, repeal could happen quickly. The Senate plans to move first on a nonbinding budget resolution instructing committees to draft repeal legislation, with the House approving it next. The resulting proposals would be sent for final votes under a process known as reconciliation, which is used to bypass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
Key players tasked with executing the plan will be Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and Health Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and on the House side, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas and incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon.
Alexander represents the home state of Nashville-based HCA Holdings Inc., a giant hospital company that has benefited from the ACA.
Replace with what?
To cushion the political blow of upending the system, party leaders are putting out a stream of statements portraying Obamacare as collapsing on its own.
But HHS reported that signups reached 6.4 million by the Dec. 19 deadline, an increase of 400,000 over the previous year’s number at this time. Earlier, President Barack Obama said that more than 670,000 Americans signed up for coverage on Dec. 15, “the biggest day ever for Healthcare.gov.”
“The overarching challenge is that the Affordable Care Act is the status quo, and disrupting the status quo in health care is always controversial,” said Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation and former adviser to President Bill Clinton’s health care efforts. “There are so many moving pieces to this effort involving lots of money and lots of interest groups. So piecing together the votes is daunting.”
Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have been vague on what they want to see, but both released blueprints calling for expanding the use of tax-advantaged health savings accounts, allowing the sale of insurance across state lines and turning Medicaid over to states. Republicans are seeking recommendations from governors and industry leaders on what to do.
Translating slogans and white-papers into legislation will create problems. Undoing Obamacare would increase the number of non-seniors who are uninsured by 24 million over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Republican aides privately acknowledge that would give Democrats a potent political weapon to fight their efforts, but say their focus will be on lowering costs and expanding choice.