Missoulian: Brace for change on health care under Trump, Daines predicts

Obamacare will go through some serious changes early in the new Trump presidency, Montana Sen. Steve Daines predicted on Monday. 

“Now we’re playing with live ammunition,” Daines said during a visit to the Missoulian. “It’s a very real discussion. This time, it needs to be thoughtful and not jammed down.”

Officially known as the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare was targeted for complete repeal by Republican congressional candidates and president-elect Donald Trump. While that’s likely to happen, Daines said it would go through a transition process to keep some of the popular parts of Obama’s healthcare program. 

Those include expanded access to preventive care, allowing parents to keep children on the family plan up to age 26, and protection for those with pre-existing medical conditions. Congressional repeal efforts will probably focus on removing the individual mandate requiring everyone to have insurance coverage.

“We paid an awfully large price for that, and we’ve seen staggering increases in the cost of premiums,” Daines said. “It was a problem in ’08, and it’s a crisis today.” 

But the repeal would have to provide a “soft landing” for states like Montana that expanded their Medicaid programs to cover previously uninsured people. Daines said getting more states to bring tested local healthcare ideas to the table would be a key part of creating a new system.

“One big mistake they made with Obamacare was it had zero bipartisan support, but it did have bipartisan opposition,” Daines said. “What you’re seeing this time is for the first time in eight years is the ability for states to come to the table and offer solutions.”

Daines noted that while this is the third time since 1945 that Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, major change would still require participation of both political parties. Despite some national speculation that the Senate filibuster rule might be doomed, Daines said that likely would only apply to presidential initiatives such as judicial nominations for the federal court system. Senators were unlikely to give up that tool on their own congressional legislation battlefield, he said. 

On the other hand, Daines’ impression of Trump’s incoming administration was to brace for fast action.

“Donald Trump didn’t run on an ideological platform,” Daines said. “He was really pragmatic. He’s not a respecter of political parties, and he doesn’t owe anybody much except the people who elected him. He’s shaken up both parties.”

“It’s two or three miles from Capitol Hill to the White House. It might as well be 2,000 miles. The American people want to see the place sharpen up. They want to see results. Donald Trump has a track record of hiring good people, delegating responsibility to them and getting things done.”

So far, Daines has been pleased with the communications he’s had with Trump’s transition team members. His chief of staff, Jason Thielman added that several key administration personnel have been working with Senate staffers on transition matters and he was impressed with their participation.

But the Senate also plays a large role in shaping Trump’s administrative leadership through the cabinet and department head vetting process. Particularly regarding the Veterans Administration cabinet post, Daines said cabinet secretaries “need experience and demonstrated results running a large organization.” Being a veteran would be an added bonus in the VA office, he said.

Daines said he’d met with Elaine Chao, Trump’s proposed Transportation secretary, and discussed Montana’s needs on highway, railroad and airport infrastructure. Chao was previously Labor secretary and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Daines also had good things to say about potential Interior Department choice Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington. 

“I think Cathy would be a very good choice,” Daines said. “We have a great relationship. I’ve worked with her for four years. She understands my position opposing transfers of federal public lands to the states.”