Congress reaches bipartisan compromise on health care

WASHINGTON — The Senate moved closer Tuesday to a rare, bipartisan deal to fix parts of the Affordable Care Act as a pair of leading senators announced an agreement designed to stabilize health insurance markets.

The deal — which was blessed by President Donald Trump — still faces significant hurdles in Congress, particularly opposition from some conservative Republicans who want nothing less than a complete repeal of the 2010 law, commonly called Obamacare.

But the announcement of the compromise worked out by Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s senior Democrat, nonetheless marks an important breakthrough in the nation’s more than seven-year battle over the health care law.

The deal would reinstate federal payments to insurers that Trump cut off last week, offering millions of Americans some relief from rising premiums and shaky insurance markets. In a nod to Republicans, it would give states limited new flexibility to offer cheaper, less generous health plans.

The compromise follows repeated failures by the GOP-led Congress in recent months to agree on legislation to dismantle the law and replace it with something else.

Most immediately, the proposed health care compromise would provide critical federal payments to health insurers to help them provide reduced-price health plans to low-income Americans.

The White House announced last week the federal government would cease these so-called cost-sharing reduction payments, which have been the subject of a yearslong legal dispute over whether Congress or the administration has authority to fund them.

The money at issue is roughly $7 billion in annual payments that the federal government makes to insurers to reimburse them for reducing deductibles and co-payments for low-income consumers, something the law requires health plans to do regardless of whether they receive government reimbursement.

The Alexander-Murray agreement would provide federal funding for the payments through 2019, a critical two-year extension that both Republican and Democratic state insurance regulators say is vital to keeping insurance rates in check.

It would authorize funding to help states create reinsurance programs to backstop insurers hit with unusually high claims, a mechanism commonly used in insurance markets to control rates.

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