Daines hasn’t decided on latest Obamacare repeal bill; Tester blasts it

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, fresh out of the first briefing on Senate Republicans’ bill to repeal “Obamacare” and overhaul national health-care policy, said Thursday he wants to scrutinize the measure before deciding whether to support it – and wants to hear what Montanans think, too.

“I think there is a lot of work to do on this bill,” he told MTN News. “It’s still very much in a draft form.”

A small group of Senate Republicans have been working in secret to craft their version of a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the signature health-reform bill passed by Democrats and then-President Barack Obama in 2010.

Republicans released the measure Thursday morning, and Daines attended a morning briefing on the bill by GOP staffers at the U.S. Capitol.

Daines spoke with MTN News in his Washington office, moments after returning from the briefing.

The bill would scale back expanded federal funding for Medicaid, the program that pays medical bills for the poor; allow states to waive minimum health-insurance requirements; get rid of the federal mandate to purchase health insurance; and continue subsidies for people buying health insurance on the individual market.

It also would eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood and cut taxes imposed by the ACA, including Medicare and investment-income taxes on very high incomes.

Debate on the bill may start as soon as next week on the U.S. Senate floor, Daines said, and a final vote could occur next Friday.

Daines said his support for the bill hinges on whether it can achieve the goal of lowering health-care costs and insurance premiums and protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

While Daines couldn’t spell out whether or how the bill meets that test, he made it clear he’s determined to replace the Affordable Care Act, which he said has been a failure.

“(Montanans) were sold a bill of goods with Obamacare,” he said. “They were told one thing and something completely the opposite happened.”

He noted that Obama and fellow Democrats had promised that the ACA would reduce health-insurance premiums and that you could keep your existing health-care plan and providers if you chose.

“We want to make sure the policy (now) will yield the intended result of lower premiums, not higher premiums,” he said.

Daines said he’ll hold a tele-town hall next Wednesday on the bill and will be talking to Montanans about their views on the measure.

Meanwhile, Montana’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, told MTN News Thursday that the GOP bill looks like a “step backward” to a health-care system where thousands of Montanans went without coverage or faced financial ruin if they got sick.

He noted that Medicaid expansion under the ACA has brought care to 80,000 low-income Montanans, and asked how they would be covered if federal funding for the program is reduced, like in the Senate bill.

“We saw a bill come out of the House that is a total train wreck, and now we have one that’s its first cousin,” Tester said in an interview from his D.C. office. “If we’re going to reduce Medicaid, that’s going to put people out on the street without health care.”

The Senate bill would start scaling back the share of federal funding for Medicaid-expansion coverage in 2021.

Daines said the bill gives the states enough time to decide how they might redesign their Medicaid programs to adjust to the new funding scheme – and noted that without changes, Medicaid will spend hundreds of billions of additional dollars that the government doesn’t have.

Tester also slammed the bill for its elimination of taxes on very wealthy Americans, that have been used to fund the ACA.

“(The bill’s) main concern is not health care for people,” he said. “It’s about giving tax breaks to the richest of the rich in this country.”

Tester said there are ways to fix problems with the ACA without undoing its fundamental approach of financing broader health coverage for the needy.

He predicted that pulling back funding for Medicaid would harm rural hospitals and access to health care in Montana.