Our Opinion: Some bipartisan hope when Congress returns

Congress returns from its summer recess following Labor Day, which surely fills most Americans with dread, especially as health care is once again back on the agenda. But there is at least a glimmer of hope that the partisan logjam on health care may be broken, and if that hope is realized, it could bring some needed fresh air to Washington, D.C.

In the wake of Republicans' failure to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will host bipartisan hearings on Wednesday and Thursday to explore ways to stabilize the individual health care markets and improve Obamacare. Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, has worked with Senator Alexander in reaching out to governors and state health care commissioners to express their concerns and recommendations at the hearings and to encourage a good turnout from both political parties.

In the House, about 40 Democrats and Republicans have formed the Problem Solvers Caucus to begin exploring ways to improve the ACA next month. Representative Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and his party's leader of the caucus, told CNN that "When [Senator John] McCain said on the floor that it's time to work together like the country wants — that had a big influence on our group." The Arizona Republican cast the deciding vote that blocked the "repeal and replace" effort and perhaps set the stage for a more constructive approach to health care.

Congress is under the gun to a degree because it must determine by September 27 what insurance plans will be available on the individual exchange that the federal government will sell to insurers. Insurers crave stability, and the effort to replace the ACA, followed by its failure, has deprived the industry of that stability. Adding to this instability was the threat of President Trump following the collapse of the Republican bill to "let Obamacare fail," which the president could make a self-fulfilling prophesy by, for example, ending the sliding-scale subsidies to make private coverage affordable for those who couldn't buy it otherwise. On Thursday, the president gutted funding for programs facilitating enrollment in health care programs under the ACA. Should enrollment decline, Mr. Trump will be sure to crow about it without acknowledging that he triggered it.

No one — including President Obama himself — has ever argued that Obamacare is flawless. It has succeeded in providing health insurance to as many as 26 million people — most of whom would have lost that insurance had any of the Republican measures passed. It introduced the popular regulation preventing insurers from dumping those with pre-existing conditions. On the downside, many businesses cancelled their health care plans, sending employees to Obamacare, which didn't have sufficient funding to cover this influx. This is the same problem that Massachusetts, which has a health care system that was largely the model for the ACA, will confront this fall on Beacon Hill.

Fine-tuning of Obamacare must be accompanied by the busting of myths perpetuated by its ideological opponents. The Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the nation's most reputable sources of facts on health care, last week issued a report countering the myth perpetuated by President Trump and Republican leadership in Congress that insurers are pulling out of the ACA's health insurance exchanges. The Kaiser Foundation found that each of the 50 states has insurers in the exchanges and only one county in the entire nation (in Ohio) is without one. Only cynical attempts to sabotage the ACA in Washington will change this.

The events in Washington in the weeks and months ahead will have an impact on Massachusetts and on Berkshire County. In an Eagle oped during the "repeal and replace" effort, Charles Joffe-Halpern, the former executive director of Ecu-Health Care in North Adams and an original member of the board of the organization that oversaw implementation of the state's health reform law in 2006, warned that 44,000 or more Berkshire residents would be adversely affected by the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement by a Republican plan. Failure to have a plan for insurers by September 27 or an effort to sabotage the ACA could have a similar impact on those county residents.

It's impossible to get overly optimistic about the bipartisan health care initiative when House Speaker Paul Ryan, still putting politics over the welfare of the nation's people, says he remains determined to repeal the ACA. Still, it must be remembered that this is not the norm. Republicans and Democrats have always and will always have their differences, but for the most part, they have worked together for the nation's benefit. Long-time Republican congressman Silvio Conte of Pittsfield was the personification of this across-the-aisle approach. If bipartisanship can succeed on health care reform, maybe it can succeed elsewhere on a variety of knotty issues. And then, perhaps we can get somewhere as a nation.


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