Fresh Evidence the GOP Can’t Touch Health Reform

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Last night, Mark Knoller of CBS Radio News caught President Obama on a hot mike. The President was chatting with donors at a fundraiser in Chicago, recounting negotiations that preceded the 2011 budget deal. Here’s what Obama says he told congressional Republicans who were bent on dismantling health reform via the budget bill:

I said, ‘Let me tell you something. I spent a year and half getting health care passed. I had to take that issue across the country and I paid significant political costs to get it done. The notion that I’m going to let you guys undo that in a six-month spending bill?’ I said, ‘You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We’ll have that debate. You’re not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we’re stupid?’

Republicans were not able to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in the recent budget deal. Major defunding efforts have gone nowhere; ditto for efforts to repeal major pieces of the law. But Republicans still need to make it appear as though they are chipping away at the law. And they are in some ways, as I’ve written earlier.

But in this recent budget deal, the GOP came up almost completely empty handed. Republicans managed to kill a provision called the Free Choice Voucher program and championed by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. It would have given some 300,000 lower income Americans more freedom in how they purchase health insurance. Other than that, the only damage Republicans were able to do on health care concerned a provision creating non-profit, health insurance cooperatives. These were put into the bill as the public option was taken out as a sort of alternative.

In an early summary of the budget deal, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee gloated that its budget bill “terminates two programs funded in ObamaCare (the Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO-OP) and the Free Choice Voucher programs).

But the CO-OP program was actually not terminated. Rather, its $6 billion budget was cut to $3.8 billion. (The GOP sunsequently updated its summary.) This is significant, but it’s certainly not terminal. In fact, an advisory board set up to design the CO-OP program voted today to approve a set of recommendations that will be the basis for federal rules governing how the cooperatives should operate.

Before the board voted via conference call today, Richard Popper of the HHS Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight came on the line to thank members for drafting the recommendations. Despite the Republican cuts to their budget, Popper sounded upbeat – certainly not like an administration official who’d been recently dealt a body blow.

Thanks to the recent budget debate, Popper said, “There is renewed interested…at higher levels in the Administration…on how this regulation will be structured…All the work that you did and implementation activities are moving forward.”