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McConnell juggling diverse demands on Republican health bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has to thread a needle with the new health care bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has to thread a needle with the new health care bill.(Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press/File 2017)

WASHINGTON — For majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, writing a Republican-only health care bill that can pass the Senate boils down to resolving the conflicting demands of senators from his own party.

Facing solid Democratic opposition to demolishing former President Barack Obama’s 2010 overhaul, Republicans will lose if just three of their 52 senators defect.

In a report that complicated McConnell’s task, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office delivered a damaging critique last week of the GOP-written bill the House approved May 4.

It concluded that the measure would create 23 million additional uninsured Americans by 2026; lower premiums for younger and healthy people by letting them buy sparser coverage; and confront unhealthy, poorer and older consumers with exorbitant out-of-pocket costs.

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Booting 23 million people off health care coverage is a nonstarter for many Republican senators. It would be a campaign attack ad that writes itself.

Republicans defend just nine of the 34 seats on next year’s Senate election map. Of them, just two seem competitive — Dean Heller of Nevada and Arizona’s Jeff Flake.

‘‘Twenty-three million people. That’s a good place to start,’’ Heller said of why he opposes the House bill.

Most losing coverage would be Medicaid beneficiaries. Also hurt are people buying their own insurance and others getting coverage at work.

The number can be reduced by spending more on Medicaid, fattening tax credits for people buying insurance, and boosting government payments to insurers to help them lower consumers’ costs. Those steps are complicated and expensive.

The House bill would halt extra federal funds in 2020 that 31 states get for Obama’s expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for poorer and disabled Americans. The legislation would also give states fixed federal sums annually, ending the open-ended payments Washington has always made to reflect growing medical expenses and caseloads.

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This means an $834 billion cut over the coming decade that would produce 14 million, or 17 percent, fewer Medicaid beneficiaries than projected, the budget office said. This is a problem for Republicans from states with a heavy reliance on Medicaid.

Twenty GOP senators are from states that expanded Medicaid, and most oppose abruptly ending the Obama law’s extra federal payments.

They include moderates like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, whose state Medicaid program has added 700,000 enrollees; as well as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Heller.

These senators are seeking a compromise that would phase out the extra federal expansion money for several additional years. They also want the overall program to grow yearly by a formula that’s more generous than the House would allow, and protect Medicaid money states use to combat the growing problem of opioid abuse.

They would also increase federal payments to state pools for assisting low-earning residents and federal tax credits that subsidize poorer people buying their own coverage.

Many conservatives want to curb Medicaid spending. In one plan, they would phase out extra federal Medicaid expansion money over a decade but reductions would begin next year.

Conservative GOP Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah want to erase Obama insurance coverage requirements. These include obliging insurers to charge the same premiums for healthy people and those with preexisting medical conditions, and forcing them to cover specified benefits like maternity care.

Many moderates are wary of a bill that would let Democratic opponents castigate them for snatching away coverage like maternity care. They also cite the budget office finding that letting states drop coverage requirements leaves many sicker and older consumers with untenably high costs.

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