OPED: Bipartisan effort on Obamacare needed now

Albert R. Hunt
Tribune News Service

In grade school, a teacher made kids who got in trouble go to the blackboard and write multiple times: "I will not ... ." It was my introduction to chalk.

Here's a repeat reference to a lesson taught two decades ago by a Republican pollster, the late Bob Teeter: The party that owns health care is a loser. Today, it's a peril both political parties face.

The Republicans who persist in careless and cruel attempts to replace Obamacare say they made a commitment to voters more than seven years ago to repeal it. They didn't tell voters they had no clue how to replace it.

This has enabled Democrats to regain the high ground on the issue. For the first time, the Affordable Care Act is more popular with voters than alternatives to it.

But the Democrats could blow it. Sen. Bernie Sanders and a growing number of Democrats want to ditch Obamacare for government-run single-payer care.

Massively overhauling 18 percent of the American economy would affect most every citizen and invariably cause tough adjustments and anxieties. It is a once-in-a-generation proposition. The Affordable Care Act is not, as Republicans charge, failing; health care today is better for most Americans than it was a decade ago.

Like most major legislation, the law has significant flaws, none of which have been addressed in the partisan environment since its enactment in 2010. There is an opportunity for some real bipartisan correctives. That should be a political, as well as a substantive, imperative.

Republicans, including the usually sensible Sen. Lindsey Graham and others, have looked foolish as they desperately try to cobble together anything to kill Obamacare. These politically motivated plans would have caused harm, especially to poor people and those with disabilities.

Not only did most every expert and affected interest, from hospitals and insurers to nurses and disease-advocacy organizations, oppose these measures. So did the public. By 56 percent to 33 percent, Americans preferred the current system to the last Republican replacement, according to a Washington Post poll. To keep at this, as the White House and some congressional Republicans threaten, is a kamikaze mission.

But that wouldn't be the case if they are sharing the spotlight with Democrats who advocate turning Obamacare into a nationally run system. This could become a litmus test for Democratic candidates in the 2018 primaries and in the next contest for the party's presidential nomination.

That possibility might allow Republicans to get off the defensive. Instead of having to justify their "repeal and replace" mess, they could attack the $30 trillion tax increase that a single-payer system would cost, throwing out people's current insurance in the process.

In the Virginia governor's race this fall, Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, has tried to pin the single-payer rap on Democrat Ralph Northam, who has said he does not support it. If Northam loses, Sanders supporters will blame it on moderate stances like this. But some politically savvy liberal Democrats like Representative Nancy Pelosi say the party's focus now should be on improving the Affordable Care Act, not on pushing for a new system.

This should be the focus of both sides.

Republicans can try to loosen regulations and turn over more responsibilities to the states, short of turning health care into a crazy-quilt system of block grants to the states. In that way, they can see if they can devise a feasible alternative to the Obamacare mandate.

Democrats could try to expand benefits to the neediest, iron out some of Obamacare's inconsistencies, seek common-sense cost controls and let people in their 50s buy into Medicare.

There already are bipartisan efforts by serious politicians. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray were working on legislation to stabilize the health-insurance markets until Republican leaders scotched it with their ill-fated hail-Mary legislative pass.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson have a measure to provide funds for high-risk enrollees. With the backing of six other governors, Colorado's John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Ohio's John Kasich, a Republican, are pushing some temporary fixes.

Instead, if Obamacare-hating Republicans insist on slipshod replacements for it, or if enough Democrats want to throw out their most important legislative achievement in decades, they can take ownership. Bring out the chalk.

— Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal. Readers may email him at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.