Republicans Struggle to Gut Obamacare

Protesters support the Affordable Care Act, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 20, 2016. Lisa Lake/Getty

Republicans in the U.S. Congress struggled on Thursday with their efforts to dismantle the Obamacare healthcare law, with conservatives urging haste while some lawmakers said the task was turning out to be more of a repair job than a repeal.

Two influential conservatives in the House of Representatives, worried that the process of scrapping Obamacare was getting bogged down, said the repeal measure that the Republican-majority Congress passed last year should be taken up quickly.

But in the Senate, a key Republican, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, counseled patience. Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate health committee, said changes to the healthcare law would be made in "chunks" and would be better labeled a "repair."

"It's more accurate to talk about repairing it ... we're repairing the damage Obamacare has done," Alexander said outside the Senate.

"We're not repealing all of Obamacare, it's not technically possible to do that (now) in the procedures that we have in the Senate, and secondly, there are some parts of it we want to keep," he said.

President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans campaigned on a promise to dismantle Obamacare, which they consider federal government overreach. They have been working on fulfilling that pledge as an early product of Republican control of both the White House and Congress.

But while both chambers voted last month to start the process of scrapping the law, they missed a target date of Jan. 27 to start drafting legislation to do so. At a congressional retreat last week, Republican leaders told lawmakers they hoped Congress would finish the Obamacare repeal by March or April.

Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and Representative Jim Jordan, the caucus' former chairman, urged the party leadership on Thursday to quickly enact an Obamacare repeal measure.

"That's what the American people expect us to do – and they expect us to do it quickly," they said.

Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and it has long been opposed by Republicans. He vetoed the repeal passed by Congress last year.

Three of the biggest national insurers have also stepped up pressure on the lawmakers to act. Aetna Inc, Anthem Inc and Cigna Corp this week urged changes in Obamacare individual plan regulations in the next few weeks, in time for them to decide if they will sell the products in 2018.

They want stricter oversight of eligibility and enrollment periods, as well as other changes. Without them, these insurers say they may pull out of the Obamacare exchanges next year, which would lead to less competition and higher premium rates. Rates for 2017 rose an average of 25 percent.

Democrats were enjoying the Republican turmoil. They have long accused Republicans of rushing to gut the Affordable Care Act, without having a replacement plan ready. The law has enabled up to 20 million previously uninsured Americans to obtain health coverage.

"They (Republicans) haven't come up with the so-called repairs," the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said in a hallway. "What a departure (for the Republicans), from 'let's repeal it and walk away from it and America will be a better place.'"