The House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act by four votes, 217 to 213. The legislation now moves to the U.S. Senate. If this bill becomes law it will do five things: Cut taxes for people who make a lot of money, end health insurance subsidies and much of the coverage from Medicaid, cause more people to go uninsured and eventually bankrupt, and frame the most important political debate in a long time.
Every Republican who voted for this mean-spirited bill must now defend against every American who has any problem with insurance or health care. (I know that’s not fair. But it’s essentially what happened to the Democrats.) You get a doctor’s bill you don’t like: Blame Trump and Ryan. Lose insurance coverage at work: Ditto. This is why the optics are so lousy for Republicans, the health care system is now their mess.
Oh. I know. This bill is not law yet. And it’s not likely to be. But it doesn't matter. Months after the House voted its first repeal of the Affordable Care Act people reported that they thought the law was gone. It was not then. Nor now.
Remember the House bill still must get through the Senate and that body is as divided as the House. But one difference is that there is a constituency in the Senate for Medicaid. (As I have been writing: This is the most significant impact on Indian Country. This bill doesn't just repeal the Affordable Care Act, it ends Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid insures more than half of all children in the Indian Health system and it accounts for 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget.)
At least four Republican Senators, Rob Portman (Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Cory Gardner (Colorado), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have been clear about their support for Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. (Medicaid is a state, federal partnership to provide health care for families with low incomes. The Affordable Care Act expanded that to single people and lowered the income limits to 138 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The numbers are huge. Before the ACA about 56 million people were insured by Medicaid. Today the number is nearly 75 million.)
A bloc of four senators - if they don't budge - has the power to say "no" to any legislation. This is the Medicaid Protection Block. And Republicans only have two votes to spare in the Senate because all of the Democrats will likely oppose this measure (as they did in the House). So the thing is that if the Senate language satisfies theMedicaid Protection Block that will enrage the Freedom Caucus in the House. That bloc stuck together and killed the House's first version of the legislation, so the second version was even more to their liking (removing federal requirements to provide basic health services including pre-existing conditions).
Complicated, right? Add to that mix the conservative members of the Senate who don't think this bill goes far enough in the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Paul Rand (Kentucky) said on Fox News: "It will take a little bit of work to get me to 'yes' vote on health care bill." In other words make the bill more ideological, not something that will get support from the Medicaid Protection Bloc.
And if that's not complicated enough, there are also Republicans in the Senate that object to the bill's attack on Planned Parenthood because of the impact of such a policy on women's health. That bloc includes Murkowski and Maine's Susan Collins.
Complex or not, no matter what comes out of the Senate (unless it's the House bill exactly) the House will have to vote again. Then the illogical Freedom Caucus gets another shot at defying their own party leadership.
But the real politics of Wednesday's action is not in Congress. It's playing out on social media and communities across the country. It's the idea that this vote was a definition for the next election. One side believes that health care is not a right. The other sees the Affordable Care Act as imperfect, but a step in the right direction.
Indian Country should be included in this debate. And we're not. Our right to health care is simple, it's based on treaties, history, and thus a pre-payment for whatever insurance mechanism the country comes up with. The Affordable Care Act at least opens up an avenue to fully fund the Indian Health system something that's never been accomplished before.
This is also the ideal moment for Indian Country to have more of a say. This is when a political coalition can be built around idea that health care is a right. Health care is already defining the 2018 elections.
And the politics of that start in Red states (those that voted for President Donald J. Trump). This bill, in a quest for free market purity (if that's even possible in health care), would benefit young people, healthy people, and people who live in cities. And paying for that experiment are older people, sicker people, and rural people.
Alaska is at the top of this list. The Affordable Care Act pays insurance companies to help keep costs down. The Republican plan ends that business. The result: "Consumers in 11 states would see tax credits fall by more than $3,000 on average, or more than 50 percent, and consumers in seven states would lose an average of more than $4,000. In Alaska, by far the highest-premium state, the average reduction in tax credits would be $10,200, or 78 percent," according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
And that doesn't even include Medicaid. Another study on that issue found the program saved Alaska significant dollars, projecting a billion dollar return after a decade. The state's Commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, Valerie Davidson, told KTUU News that "with our $3.5 billion budget deficit, we don’t have an additional one billion dollars more to pay for services that we currently have, we just can’t afford it."
She also said the House bill would strip behavioral health funding when it's so important in the middle of an opioid epidemic.
So for an Alaska representative, one that works for constituents, this should have been a no-brainer. This bill is terrible for Alaska. Last week Rep. Don Young said as much. He claimed victory when the previous bill was pulled from consideration without a vote. He told The Alaska Dispatch News: "My job is to represent those people in that state, and I think we did this this week. I work with (House Speaker Paul Ryan), don't get me wrong — the speaker talked to me quite a bit. But it didn't come to a point where I could support this bill. He needed my vote."
The bill that passed Wednesday is not significantly different. Alaska is still hosed. And Don Young voted "yes." Now he says, don't worry, this bill will not become law. The Senate will change it.
That's basically the position of Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican in leadership, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He told National Public Radio: "This thing is going to go to the United States Senate. It's going to change, in my view, in the United States Senate in some way. Then we have to have a Congress -- a conference to work out the differences. If we can do that, then it has to still pass the House and the Senate again before it ever gets to the president. So, you know, at some point, you just have to move. And we think this is it and that this will create some momentum. Again, I'm interested to see what our friends in the Senate will do in response."
Cole is a champion for Indian health programs, especially when it comes to the budget. He's often the critical voice and the only Native American at the table when budgets are written. However he dismisses Medicaid Expansion quickly because Oklahoma is one of the states that's passed. Ok. We disagree. Understandable.
But this House measure is not just about Medicaid Expansion; it's a radical restructuring of Medicaid and capping costs. Even in Oklahoma Medicaid serves more than 800,000 people. And, remember that Medicaid is 13 percent of the IHS budget, more than $800 million now and growing. Already more than half of our children are insured this way. Plus this is the best kind of money because it's used by local clinics and hospitals.
This is what Tom Cole, Don Young, and 215 other Republicans voted to take away from Indian Country. This is what's on the ballot next year.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports