The dramatic collapse of Senate legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act may not end the Republican dream of rolling back the 2010 healthcare law.
But it lay bare a reality that will impede any GOP effort to sustain the repeal campaign: Americans, though ambivalent about Obamacare in general, don’t want to give up the law’s landmark health protections.
“There may be a whole lot of Americans who are complaining about government, but that doesn’t mean they agree with eliminating the safety net,” said former Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican and healthcare policy leader in the 1980s and ’90s. “We saw that with Social Security and Medicare in Reagan’s day. Now it is a much broader group of people who rely on those health protections.”
And as the Senate debate this week illustrated, Obamacare’s safety net — both guaranteed insurance for the sick and expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor — proved too valued to tear apart.
That means that, while attacks on Obamacare will probably continue, it’s increasingly unlikely that President Trump or GOP congressional leaders will be able to rip out the law “root and branch,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) once promised.
The GOP’s failure to dismantle the expanded healthcare safety net also may provide an opening for Republicans and Democrats to cooperate on measures to help Americans who have struggled in recent years with rising premiums brought about, in part, by Obamacare.
“Now the real work lies before us,” March of Dimes President Stacey D. Stewart said Friday, following the defection overnight of three GOP senators who voted against a last-ditch Republican bill to begin unraveling the law.
“Our healthcare system and the laws that govern it are far from perfect, and many opportunities exist to find areas of common ground to make improvements,” Stewart said.
This was not how Republicans had sketched out repeal.
For years, GOP politicians cast themselves as saviors, promising to deliver Americans from a law that former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, now Trump’s Housing secretary, once called the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
Demonizing Obamacare, initially a derisive label the GOP coined for the ACA, proved good politics. Republicans scored major victories in the 2010, 2014 and 2016 elections on pledges to roll back the law.
But the successful political message — which built off deep partisan divisions — obscured much broader support for the law’s core elements.
For example, 80% of Americans in a national survey last fall reported favorable views of allowing states to expand Medicaid to cover more poor adults, and of providing aid to low- and moderate-income Americans to help them buy health coverage, two pillars of the law.
The same proportion, according to the poll by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, liked the law’s insurance marketplaces, which allow consumers to shop among health plans that must offer a basic set of benefits.
Nearly 70% backed the law’s coverage guarantee, which prohibits insurers from turning away people due to their medical history of preexisting conditions.
“As a law, Obamacare got caught up in the politics of the time. It became the symbol of the Obama administration,” said Mollyann Brodie, who oversees polling for the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But the policies themselves have always been quite popular, even among Republicans.”
GOP politicians didn’t have to reckon with that contradiction as they took dozens of essentially meaningless repeal votes while Obama was still in the White House to veto their bills.
That changed after the 2016 elections. No longer was repeal an abstract political slogan.
That is not what Americans wanted, said Dr. Jack Ende, president of the American College of Physicians.
“No version of legislation brought up this year would have achieved the types of reforms that Americans truly need: lower premiums and deductibles, with increased access to care,” said Ende, a University of Pennsylvania primary care doctor.
Independent analyses of the GOP repeal bills by the Congressional Budget Office and others estimated they would leave tens of millions more Americans without health coverage and drive up costs for many older and sicker consumers.
In the crosshairs were not just unemployed adults whom conservative critics derided as freeloaders, but also poor children, disabled Americans and seniors who worked all their lives but depended on Medicaid for nursing home care.
Altogether, nearly 1 in 4 Americans rely on Medicaid and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program for coverage.
And as the repeal debate dragged on in Washington and in congressional districts across the country, stories of these Americans and others who rely on Obamacare’s healthcare protections brought the safety net to life.
National polls ultimately showed that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans surveyed supported the Republican repeal legislation.
By contrast, 60% of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center poll said that it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans have health coverage — the highest level in nearly a decade.
Even many Republican state leaders — including the governors of Ohio, Nevada and Arizona — balked at the congressional rush to roll back the Medicaid safety net. In a bipartisan letter to Senate leaders this week, several of these governors urged lawmakers to turn away from the repeal push.
“We ask senators to work with governors on solutions to problems we can all agree on: fixing our unstable insurance markets,” wrote the governors — five Republicans and five Democrats.
Some congressional Republicans seemed reluctant to give up the repeal campaign. “As long as there is breath in my body, I will be fighting for the working men and women of this country that are being hurt by Obamacare,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said after the vote early Friday morning.
And conservative activists continue to demand action. “In Washington, there are no permanent victories or permanent defeats,” said Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner.
The president, meanwhile, reiterated his threats to “let Obamacare implode,” as he said in a Twitter post after the early Friday vote.
The administration could potentially sabotage insurance markets across the country by refusing to enforce the current law’s requirement to buy insurance or withholding payments to health insurers that subsidize costs for very low-income consumers.
But at the Capitol, Democrats and some Republicans appear willing to begin considering legislation to protect those markets and help millions of American consumers who have seen insurance premiums rise dramatically in recent years.
“Simply letting Obamacare collapse will only cause even more pain,” warned Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Fixing the safety net represents a far better approach than a new push to tear it down, said Durenberger, the former GOP senator.
“Bipartisanship is the only option,” he said.