Sens. Murray and Alexander fight the good fight for health care

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Washington state’s own Democratic Sen. Patty Murray are two experienced lawmakers with a knack for finding common ground. Here’s hoping they succeed.

Enough with all the D.C. dysfunction. The adults in the room have work to do.

The adults sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, well led by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Washington state’s own Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, the panel’s ranking member. They are seeking, against long odds, to lower health-care costs and bring some much-needed stability to the individual insurance market. No easy task.

Working across party lines to get difficult things done is nothing new for Murray. In 2013, she and Paul Ryan came together to create a budget deal that averted a government shutdown. In 2015, she worked with Sen. Alexander to fix the flawed No Child Left Behind Act.

Now, she and Alexander have teamed up again. They have heard testimony this month from governors and state insurance commissioners, and Thursday, their committee was scheduled to hear from doctors, hospitals, insurers and patients. The basic deal they are working toward is this: Guarantee the subsidies to insurance companies that President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to end, while giving states more flexibility to offer different insurance options.

Critics of the plan call it a bailout for insurance companies. Murray and Alexander say they are just trying to avoid large premium increases that would result from continued uncertainty in the market.

Alexander said at a recent HELP committee hearing: “To get a result, Democrats will have to agree to something — more flexibility for states — that some may be reluctant to support. And Republicans will have to agree to something, additional funding through the Affordable Care Act, that some may be reluctant to support. That is called a compromise.”

He also said this: “People know the high respect I have for Sen. Murray. When she gets involved and tries to get a result, we usually get one.”

Here’s hoping. These are two experienced lawmakers with a knack for finding common ground, but the congressional cards are stacked against them, and they face a Sept. 27 deadline. That’s the day insurers must sign contracts that will lock them into participating in Obamacare next year.

Elsewhere on the Hill this week, two things happened:

First, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy geared up for a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare before the Sept. 27 deadline. Almost no one thinks that will go anywhere.

Secondly, Sen. Bernie Sanders released his latest plan to create a single-payer, government-run health-care system. While Sanders doesn’t offer much information about how much the plan would cost or how we’d pay for it, a growing number of Democrats have endorsed the idea, including most of the buzzed-about 2020 presidential hopefuls. Lots of folks suddenly seem eager to prove their populist bona fides. They have learned the lessons of 2016, apparently.

Universal health care may be coming into fashion among the Democratic base, but it will not pass into law this year. Not with the current congressional makeup. Not with this president in the White House. Sanders, who also sits on the Senate health committee, knows all this, of course, and more than anything else his proposal is a statement: This is the new Democratic vision for health care. It is a perfect-world, aspirational plan, floating high above us, up there in the realm of first-draft party platforms.

Down here on earth, Sens. Murray and Alexander are working to patch up the current system, trying to avoid a marketplace collapse that would do real harm.

While partisans on the left and right posture, the middle is where hard, necessary things get done.

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