'We're Amending Obamacare. We're Not Killing It'

The Senate bill coming out Thursday would do many things to health care in the U.S., but it won’t get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and Mitch McConnell won’t claim that it does.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The health-care bill Senate Republicans plan to unveil on Thursday likely will make substantial changes to Medicaid and cut taxes for wealthy Americans and businesses. It will eliminate mandates and relax regulations on insurance plans, and it will reduce the federal government’s role in health care.

What it won’t do, however, is actually repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Lost in the roiling debate over health care over the last several weeks is that Republicans have all but given up on their longstanding repeal-and-replace pledge. The slogan lives on in the rhetoric used by many GOP lawmakers and the Trump White House but not in the legislation the party is advancing. That was true when House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act last month, which rolled back key parts of Obamacare but was not a full repeal. And it is even more true of the bill the Senate has drafted in secret, which reportedly will stick closer to the underlying structure of the law.

“We’re amending Obamacare. We’re not killing it,” a frustrated Jason Pye of the conservative group FreedomWorks told me earlier this month as the murky outlines of the Senate proposal were beginning to emerge.

Like the House bill, the Senate plan is expected to repeal the ACA’s employer and individual insurance mandates and most if not all of the tax increases Democrats levied to pay for new programs and benefits. But the Senate bill likely will only begin a years-long phase-out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion in 2020 rather than end it as the House measure does.

The Senate also is expected to include more generous tax credits than the House bill that more closely resemble the system already in place under Obamacare. But the funding levels would still be lower than the current law. And according to Axios, the bill would allow states to opt out of some ACA insurance regulations, but it would do so by loosening existing waivers within the current law rather than follow the House in creating a new waiver system. And the Senate proposal would require that states adhere to more of Obamacare’s regulations than the House bill.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell has quietly abandoned the language of “repeal-and-replace” that his office originated seven years ago in the immediate aftermath of the ACA’s enactment. In more than a dozen speeches on health care that McConnell has delivered on the Senate floor since the House passed its bill in early May, he hasn’t uttered the word “repeal” a single time, according to transcripts provided by the majority leader’s office. Nor has he repeated his own pledge to rip out Obamacare “root and branch.” “We’re going to make every effort to pass a bill that dramatically changes the current health care law,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, setting a new standard for the bill Republicans plan to release on Thursday.

When the year started, legislation leaving Obamacare substantially in place would have been dead on arrival with hardliners in the House and Senate, who demanded that party leaders expand on a bill that former President Barack Obama vetoed in 2015. That measure did not fully repeal the ACA either, bowing to Senate budget rules limiting how much of the law Republicans could scrap without a filibuster-proof 60 votes. But it eliminated the tax credits and subsidies undergirding the law’s insurance exchanges along with its tax increases and mandates. And with Republicans now in control of both Congress and the White House, conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus this spring began pushing the leadership to go further by repealing Obamacare’s core consumer protections guaranteeing the coverage of essential health benefits and prohibiting insurers from charging higher rates to people with preexisting conditions.

The deal that ultimately allowed the AHCA to pass the House was an under-appreciated turning point in the health-care debate. The concession that Speaker Paul Ryan and a few key moderates made to the Freedom Caucus was to allow states to opt out of some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, most crucially on equal treatment for pre-existing conditions. But the concession that conservative lawmakers and outside groups made in return was just as significant: They agreed to back off their demand for full repeal and endorse—or at least not fight—a bill that fell far short of that goal.

“While this legislation does not fully repeal Obamacare, it’s an important step in keeping that promise to lower healthcare costs,” the Freedom Caucus said in its statement upon passage of the AHCA. It was a message echoed by outside groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, and the Club for Growth, who agreed to drop their opposition to the bill, a move that gave Republicans additional cover to vote for it. Conservatives had embraced an incrementalist approach to Obamacare. The new standard they adopted for health-care legislation was not whether it eliminated the Affordable Care Act but whether it would lower premiums for most consumers.

One key question for McConnell is whether the most outspoken conservatives in his caucus—Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah—will judge the Senate bill by that more modest baseline. Republicans can lose no more than two votes to secure passage, and a group of moderate senators is proving just as difficult for party leaders to nail down. To this point, Paul has been the most critical of the GOP approach and the most likely to oppose the proposal from the right. The House bill, he complained, already kept 90 percent of Obamacare’s subsidies. “If this gets any more subsidies in it, it may well be equal to what we have in Obamacare. So it really wouldn’t be repeal,” Paul said on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg. Even so, the Kentucky conservative wouldn’t rule out supporting the bill until he read the text.

Cruz and Lee have participated in the Senate process as members of the 13-man working group, and aides have said both have bought into McConnell’s incremental approach. But the two have each complained about the emerging draft in recent days, either on the substance or the top-down, secretive process used to write the bill. “We’re not there yet,” Cruz said Tuesday on Fox News. “The current draft doesn’t do nearly enough to lower premiums.”

The Congressional Budget Office projected that in states that opted out of Obamacare’s insurance requirements under the waivers allowed in the House bill, average premiums would drop significantly. But the tradeoff is that people with preexisting conditions would face sharply higher costs or be priced out of insurance entirely. Conservatives have argued that the high cost of adhering to the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements has forced insurers to raise premiums in order to make a profit.

Conservative activists briefly held out hope that the health-care bill would move further to the right in the Senate, buoyed by efforts by Cruz and Lee to have Republicans override parliamentary rulings limiting how much of Obamacare they could repeal through the budget reconciliation process. But party leaders never seriously considered that option, which moderate Republicans were likely to oppose.

In recent weeks, conservatives have instead focused on demanding that the Senate preserve—or deepen—the reforms to Medicaid in the House bill while still repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. “It is clear that significant portions of the Republican Party have no intention of actually repealing Obamacare despite campaigning on that objective for years,” Mike Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Conservatives will evaluate legislative language when it becomes available, looking particularly at whether the legislation empowers states to get out of the onerous insurance mandates imposed by Obamacare, maintains and improves the House’s Medicaid reforms, and repeals Obamacare’s stifling taxes.”

Make no mistake, Republicans aren’t merely tinkering around the edges of the health-care system, or Obamacare. The Senate proposal that will come out on Thursday will significantly alter the federal funding of Medicaid and, in all likelihood, would result in millions fewer Americans having health insurance over the next decade, as projected by the CBO. And while they won’t be excited by the bill, conservative senators and activists might well come around to support it. They’d vote for the plan as a step in the right direction, a weakening of Obamacare. But like McConnell, they won’t be calling it something that it’s not: repeal.