Amid buzz on health bill, Murkowski keeps quiet

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks on the senate floor. (YouTube screenshot/Sen. Lisa Murkowski)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo from 2016 video/Murkowski’s office.)

Two U.S. House committees are due to take up the new Republican health care bill Wednesday, to replace the Affordable Care Act. When the bill gets to the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, could turn out to be a swing vote. She has said she’s willing to break with her party to keep Medicaid expansion and funding for Planned Parenthood. But Murkowski isn’t ready to say yet what she makes of the House bill.

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In the basement of the Capitol, a clot of reporters lay in wait for Sen. Murkowski. Everybody wanted to know what Murkowski thinks of the health care bill. But Murkowski was in a hurry to get on the underground train to get back to her office.

A Washington Post reporter lobbed a question as she boarded: “Do you like this bill?”

Murkowski played it coy: “I like the Senate resolution that we just passed. Hooray!”

She knew no one was there to ask her about the resolution rescinding rules on BLM planning.

“That’s not the bill,” the Post reporter said, as the train doors closed, leaving him behind.

Truth is, Murkowski said she doesn’t have a lot of answers yet.

“Believe it or not, I haven’t had a chance to actually read that bill. I have barely been in my office all day,” Murkowski said.

From what little she has seen, Murkowski said the bill would “defund” Planned Parenthood (meaning it would block the organization from receiving reimbursement for Medicaid patients it treats) for a year. But Murkowski thought she saw more in her quick glance at the bill.

“It made it appear it was not just to Planned Parenthood but ‘other entities’ … that provide for women’s health care. Well what does that mean? I have no idea. But I don’t like that,” Murkowski said. “So I have to look very, very critically at all of this.”

The bill’s changes to Medicaid expansion aren’t easy to understand at a glance, either. Murkowski was among four Republican senators who signed a letter this week saying the draft bill didn’t seem to adequately protect the program. But the House sponsors changed the legislation, preserving Medicaid expansion until 2020. After that, the bill would freeze enrollment and the government would begin paying states per capita, based on how much they spent on the program last year. The New York Times reports Alaska would fare better than most other states.

In Anchorage, Northrim Benefits Group President Joshua Weinstein advises employers on health care matters. He’s learned enough about the bill to form at least one conclusion: “This legislation is much kinder to employers than it is to individuals who are purchasing health insurance on the marketplace, or are getting Medicaid.”

The bill does away with a lot of documentation requirements for employers. Companies would no longer have to provide insurance if they have 50 or more workers, and Weinstein said, it delays the so-called “Cadillac tax” on expensive plans, until 2025.

“This tax would have penalized the great majority of Alaskan employers that provide health insurance because the tax is based on the cost of health care, in short,” Weinstein said. “So that’s a relief to see in the legislation.”

But, Weinstein said for individuals who buy their own insurance, the bill provides tax credits that aren’t as generous as the subsidies that are now offered to eligible Alaskans on healthcare.gov.

Murkowski said she’s waiting for feedback from the Alaskans she’s been working with on health care, like the state insurance division director, providers, and leaders in the Native health care system.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said his not ready to discuss the health care bill either. He prides himself on reading bills in their entirety.

Alaska Congressman Don Young said in a written statement he’s still reviewing the bill, but he said the current system is “broken” and, “doing nothing would be entirely irresponsible.”