Sen. Klobuchar steers health care debate to middle ground

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar had 90 minutes on the national stage Monday to make her best case for protecting the Affordable Care Act.

She started with her own first serious encounter with a health crisis, as the new mother of a desperately ill baby.

“Politics is about making people’s life better,” said the Minnesota Democrat, who turned that experience two decades ago into a campaign to ensure that other new mothers wouldn’t be pushed out of the hospital 24 hours after delivery, as she was.

Klobuchar shared the stage at Monday’s CNN health care town hall debate with three colleagues with two different plans to do away with so-called Obamacare. Vermont’s independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders favors a single-payer system that would expand Medicare to all Americans. Republican U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham sponsored the latest, likely unsuccessful, attempt to dismantle the health care law.

The Cassidy-Graham bill is teetering on the brink of collapse, lacking the 50 Republican votes it needs to pass before an end-of-the-week procedural deadline.

“I’m here tonight because Obamacare is failing,” Graham said, as the evening’s topic pivoted from his faltering bill to a broader discussion of what happens next with the nation’s health care.

Cassidy-Graham would replace federal subsidies with state block grants. In the process, it would take billions of dollars away from states such as Minnesota while sending billions more to states such as Wisconsin that had rejected extra ACA funds.

Sanders called for a short-term bipartisan fix to shore up struggling state health exchanges and push down rising premium costs. The Senate health committee had been working on such a fix, only to collapse as Graham-Cassidy gained steam. “Let us work together,” he said.

The 90-minute format gave senators a chance to discuss a fraught policy issue and to hear from Americans battling rising premiums and medical bills, or terrified that a change in the law could deprive a sick child of future coverage.

The senators often agreed on problems with the current system, but they differed sharply on the solution.

“Obamacare is just a placeholder for Berniecare,” Graham said, positioning his bill as a firewall between the American health care system and socialized medicine.

But earlier Monday, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper blasted Graham’s bill, which she said would cost the state $1.9 billion in federal funding in the first three years alone — losses that could mount to an estimated $37 billion for the state by 2030.

“Of all the proposals so far to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill is the most extreme,” Piper said Monday. “It would hurt children, seniors, people with disabilities, and low- and middle-income Minnesotans. … [It] would, over time, move us backward by cutting federal funds for Medicaid and premium tax credits and eliminating all funding for adults without children on Medicaid and for MinnesotaCare.”

The bill’s sponsors spent the weekend redrafting and adding sweeteners targeted at the home states of reluctant Republicans. Alaska, Maine and Arizona — home to U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain, all of whom voted against the last repeal effort — got sudden funding boosts.

Cassidy and Graham spent Monday afternoon defending the bill at a contentious hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. Shouting protesters — many of them in wheelchairs — were dragged from the hearing room. The line of people waiting to get into the small hearing room began forming in the morning and eventually stretched into the Senate office next door.

But by evening, Collins had joined McCain and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in opposition to the bill, likely torpedoing its prospects.

Sanders’ bill is no more likely to pass the Republican-majority Congress, although it has garnered 16 cosponsors, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. It would expand the Medicare health insurance program that currently serves the elderly to all Americans, covering virtually all medical needs except long-term nursing care.

The proposal delighted the party’s progressive base — and attracted the support of several senators who could be eyeing White House runs in 2020 — but it also has galvanized Republican critics.

“Socialism isn’t a solution,” Cassidy told Sanders as they shared the stage.

Klobuchar, who has not signed on to Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, said she was sick of the “false choice” between repealing the ACA and keeping it as is. She urged the Senate to try again for a bipartisan fix.

“This is about people,” she said, reeling off a list of struggling Minnesotans she’s met in her annual circuit of Minnesota’s 87 counties — including a retiree who scavenges droplets of insulin from old syringes. “This bill doesn’t help those people. It makes things worse.”

The solution, she said, is on hold in the Senate health committee — where a parade of witnesses, including MNsure’s CEO, have testified in recent weeks.

“We can do something quickly to fix the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “That’s why we can’t afford to let them ram through a bill that’s going to make things worse by cutting millions off of health care, jacking up premiums, and doing nothing about skyrocketing drug costs. Tomorrow we should restart the promising bipartisan work to fix the Affordable Care Act.”



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