ST. GEORGE — Dr. Tom Price, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, will be in Utah Monday to discuss, among other things, the Senate’s bill to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law and replace it with patient-centered reforms.
Last week, the Senate released a discussion draft of the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” to mixed reviews, including in Utah, where Sen. Mike Lee said he opposed it just hours after the legislation was released.
Lee joined four other GOP senators in a statement saying that the new plan will not accomplish “the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their healthcare costs.”
The Utah Health Policy Project released a statement Monday saying Obama’s Affordable Care Act is “working well (in Utah) despite its political baggage and implementation challenges.” The statement pointed to St. George as one of the 10 zip codes in Utah that had the highest ACA enrollment.
However, the new GOP plan has support in the state from Sen. Orrin Hatch, who worked closely on the drafting of the bill in his role as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In one of Monday’s morning meetings with state business leaders, Price praised Hatch for his work on the bill.
Previewing his Utah visit, Price wrote an op-ed for the Deseret News published over the weekend touting a top priority of the healthcare bill that a media statement from Hatch’s office said the senator fought hard to include: allowing states to tailor healthcare programs according to their needs.
“The people of Utah have a long and proud tradition of knowing exactly what they are for: family, community, industry, responsible stewardship of government and the God-given right to a free conscience,” Price wrote in the op-ed. “These are the very values protected and enshrined in the Senate plan.”
Calling Obamacare a “Washington knows best approach,” Price went on to say the Trump administration trusts individuals and families to make their own decisions. He wrote:
To ensure every American has access to affordable care, we support providing targeted tax credits to those who need financial assistance and expands the opportunity for folks to save some of their hard-earned money tax-free to spend on future health needs.
Matt Slonaker, executive director of Utah Health Policy Project, said he agreed that Utahns value their autonomy but that the concept has wider reaching implications.
“It’s true that Utahns don’t like being told what’s good for them by folks in Washington, D.C.,” Slonaker said. “But that rule also applies to administrations trying to take away benefits—like tax credits that make insurance premiums more affordable, and the security of quality coverage—that Utah families now rely on. The only promise in the current Senate bill is that Utah families will pay higher out-of-pocket costs for less coverage and fewer benefits, especially those who are older, poorer, and sicker or experience a significant medical event.”
The statement from Utah Health Policy Project also said Price’s claims that Utah premiums had increased “on average $1,920 since 2013” would be an accurate comparison if plans offered in 2013 were similar to 2017 plans, but that isn’t the case.
“If premiums were lower in 2013, it was because the coverage they offered back then was far skimpier,” the statement read, “and the deliberate denial of people with pre-existing conditions benefited the healthy people who were allowed to purchase coverage.”
In a press conference last week, Gov. Gary Herbert touted the importance of state flexibility, saying “Just give me the money — we’ll figure it out and do what we need to do in Utah. We already have the lowest cost healthcare in Utah, it’s not like we’re not doing things pretty well.”
This may not matter, however, as the bill in its current form is facing tough odds. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he hopes to push it through his chamber this week, but solid Democratic opposition—and complaints from at least a half-dozen Republicans—have left its fate unclear.
The bill would fail if just three of the Senate’s 52 GOP senators oppose it. And as of Saturday, four other GOP senators besides Lee have publicly declared their opposition. Nevada’s Dean Heller is the most recent to join Sens. Lee, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul.
According to the Associated Press, Heller said he opposes the measure “in this form” but does not rule out backing a version that is changed to his liking.
Heller, facing a competitive re-election battle next year, said he was opposing the legislation because of the cuts it would make in Medicaid.
“I cannot support a piece of legislation that takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Nevadans,” Heller said.
Besides these five, several other GOP senators—conservatives and moderates—have declined to commit to the new overhaul. McConnell has said he’s willing to alter the measure to attract support.
Associated Press reporters ALAN FRAM and REGINA GARCIA CANO contributed to this report with information regarding Dean Heller.
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