Juneau Empire: EDITORIAL: Let’s end 2017 on a high note

Health care dominated the headlines this summer and although the cameras turned off and the media largely tuned out after the end of the fiscal year, my colleagues and I kept working. Under the leadership of Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, those of us on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) held hearings where governors, providers and stakeholders came together to talk about what was broken in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to provide ideas on how it could be improved. Instead of diving into the issues that divide us, we focused on the details and looked at what was creating uncertainty in the individual market, where the law stifled innovation, and ultimately what was driving up costs to consumers.

Alaska was front and center in our deliberations because we have been at the leading edge of innovation under the ACA. The Director of our Division of Insurance, Lori Wing-Heier, testified about how the reinsurance program our Legislature and governor put into place helped lower premiums in Alaska by 22 percent. Within the Committee, we looked at the obstacles other states faced in following our lead and we considered how to create more affordable plans without waiving the essential health benefits within the ACA.

Partly based on Alaska’s experience, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ben Nelson, D-Florida, introduced the Lower Premiums Through Reinsurance Act, colloquially known as “Collins-Nelson,” to extend the benefits Alaska’s Reinsurance Program has brought to our state. As we have seen firsthand, establishing invisible high-risk pools can lower premiums without segregating the sick.

The HELP Committee also did its work and developed the Bipartisan Health Care Stabilization Act, better known as “Alexander-Murray.” This bill would provide money for cost-share reduction payments, which help low-income people cover copays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The bill would also allow anyone to buy a lower-cost “copper” plan, and give states more flexibility in determining how to regulate their own insurance markets.

As a strong co-sponsor of both bills, I have been working to ensure their passage before we wrap up for the year. When I reiterated my support for repealing the tax penalty on individuals who either cannot afford or choose not to buy health insurance I also emphasized the importance of stabilizing the individual market, and Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson are critical components to do just that. But, they are just two legs of the three-legged stool I am looking for.

More than 17,700 Denali KidCare enrollees depend on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP, and stabilizing the market also means reauthorizing this program for an extended period of time. We could accomplish this by adopting Orrin Hatch’s, R-Utah, KIDS Act, which reauthorizes CHIP for five years, or some variation of it. So far we have extended CHIP through December, but now is the time to pass a longer-term extension and give Alaska’s most vulnerable children the security they deserve.

As we near the end of the year, I have been working to close out with a bipartisan package that stabilizes the individual markets while providing room for states to innovate, options for more affordable plans, help for the sickest among us, and continued access to the preventive care and treatment our children deserve. Adding Alexander-Murray, Collins-Nelson, and an extension of CHIP to the next continuing resolution will accomplish all of that and set the stage for a better 2018.

By:  Senator Lisa Murkowski
Source: Juneau Empire