U.S. Republicans on defense after report says millions would lose insurance

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By Susan Heavey and Susan Cornwell | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Republicans on Tuesday defended their
plan to dismantle the Obamacare healthcare reform after a
nonpartisan research report showed 14 million Americans would
lose medical insurance by next year under the proposal even as
it reduces the budget deficit.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on Monday
forecast that by 2026, the number of people without health
insurance would increase by 24 million if the House of
Representatives’ legislation to replace the 2010 Affordable Care
Act is adopted.

The findings are making it harder for Republicans to sell
the plan – their first major piece of legislation under
Republican President Donald Trump – in Congress, especially the
Senate.

The Trump administration defended the proposed healthcare
overhaul, saying it will offer consumers more choices than
Obamacare, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature
domestic policy achievement.

Congressional Republicans have vowed for years to undo
Obamacare, which expanded health insurance to about 20 million
Americans.

But their new effort faces opposition from a range of
Republicans – from conservatives who think it does not go far
enough to moderates concerned about the impact on coverage and
costs.

Doctors, hospitals and other medical providers as well as
patient advocates have urged lawmakers to abandon the plan.

Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance
Committee, said he did not think the CBO report meant the end of
the proposal. “No matter what you do … you’re going to have
differences like that, and to be honest with you, I don’t think
they truly looked at all the aspects,” he said.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the CBO’s main role
was not evaluating healthcare coverage.

“When you get down to it, the Congressional Budget Office is
there to measure the potential impact of programs on the federal
budget. Its attempts to estimate coverage have been historically
faulty,” he told reporters.

Democrats say the Republican plan could hurt the elderly,
poor and working families while giving tax cuts for the rich.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said it “is a wreck.”

“It’s vintage Donald Trump: talks like a populist, but when
he acts, it’s hard-right, favoring the special interests and
hurting the middle class and those trying to get there,”
Democrat Schumer told a news conference.

Republican senators held a lunch on Capitol Hill with Vice
President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom
Price where they discussed possible changes to the Republican
healthcare bill.

In one assessment that might persuade more Senate
Republicans to back the bill, the CBO said federal deficits
would fall by $337 billion between 2017 and 2026 under the
measure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the CBO report
indicated a path to lower insurance premiums, a lower deficit
and significant entitlement reform. He said the bill would be
open to amendment once it came to the Senate, suggesting the
process of shaping the legislation was far from done.

“The first step is in the House. We’re hopeful and
optimistic they’re going to send us over something. It will be
open for amendment. We’re going to do our thing, and pass it,”
he told reporters.

Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to repeal and replace
Obamacare and provide insurance for everybody, has yet to
comment on the report.

SHARES FALL

Shares of hospitals and health insurers slipped, partly on
worries the plan would mean fewer insured patients.

Among insurer stocks, UnitedHealth Group Inc was
down 0.6 percent, Aetna Inc shed 0.4 percent and Humana
Inc dipped 0.3 percent.

“What that means basically is lower volume for the health
insurers. It looks like it’s going to be the dismantling of the
individual insurance market, which again means lower revenues
and the loss of the individual market for the most part for the
insurers,” said Vishnu Lekraj, an equity analyst at Morningstar.

Hospital shares were also lower. Tenet Healthcare Corp fell 3.3 percent and HCA Holdings Inc slipped
1.4 percent.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a prominent conservative
skeptic of the legislation, said he believed the CBO assessment
was correct and stepped up his call for House Republicans to put
the bill on hold to fix its problems.

“They’re right that coverage levels will go down in the
coming years under the House bill,” Cotton told a conservative
radio interviewer. “They’re also right, I’m afraid, that
insurance premiums will continue to go up in the near term, for
three to four years, before they start perhaps falling in the
long term.”

Overall, CBO projected that 52 million people would be
uninsured by 2026 if the bill becomes law, compared with 28
million who would not have coverage that year if Obamacare
remained unchanged.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer, Mike Erman and Natalie
Grover)



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