WASHINGTON Democrats mounted a fierce uphill battle on Wednesday to thwart a Republican plan backed by President Donald Trump to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system, even as the legislation also drew fire from a top medical group and dissatisfied conservatives.
Two House of Representatives committees began debating the bill and considering amendments two days after it was unveiled by Republican leaders. The goal: to dismantle and replace the Obamacare law they call a government overreach that has ruined healthcare in America.
Doctors and other providers said the bill would probably cause many patients to lose insurance and raise healthcare costs. In a letter to key lawmakers, the American Medical Association urged them to reconsider its drastic changes to Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.
The AMA, which supported Obamacare, said that by replacing income-based subsidies with age-based tax credits to help people buy insurance, the plan would make coverage more expensive, if not out of reach, for poor and sick Americans. Obamacare enabled 20 million previously uninsured people obtain medical coverage.
The AARP lobbying group for older Americans also opposed the Republican plan.
Seeking to mollify conservatives who on Tuesday blasted the bill as too similar to the Obamacare law it is supposed to supplant, House Speaker Paul Ryan touted it as “a conservative wish list” and “monumental, exciting conservative reform.”
“This is what we’ve been dreaming about doing,” Ryan said at a news conference.
Trump and congressional Republicans campaigned last year on a promise to dismantle Obamacare, and the legislation represented a key step toward that goal.
Democrats have said Obamacare, formally called the Affordable Care Act, succeeded in greatly expanding the number of Americans with medical insurance, and said the Republican plan would take it away from millions of people while benefiting the rich by repealing healthcare-related taxes.
Even though Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, the fate of the Republican legislation is far from certain, with Democrats and many conservative Republicans opposed while moderate Republicans also express reservations.
The House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees health issues, kicked off what could become marathon sessions working on the legislation.
‘PRESCRIPTION FOR DISASTER’
Democrats unsuccessfully sought to delay committee consideration of the measure so lawmakers could have more time to examine it. The top Energy and Commerce Committee Democrat, Representative Frank Pallone, called the Republican plan “a prescription for disaster.”
Pallone said not a single hearing had been held to develop the bill. “How many more millions of Americans will lose their health insurance as a result of this bill?” Pallone asked.
Republicans insisted on committee action even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has not yet assessed the cost of the measure.
Ways and Means Democrats raised questions over a proposed tax break for insurance company executives contained in the bill. Democrat Lloyd Doggett called it a “$400 million windfall” for insurance company executives.
“You would think we’re asking for President Trump’s tax returns,” Doggett said of the Republicans’ lack of explanation for the need for such a tax break, alluding to the president’s refusal to release his tax returns.
The panels are due to vote on the bill before it later goes to the House floor for a vote on passage. The legislation also must win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slimmer majority, before going to Trump for his signature.
The plan would scrap the requirement under Obamacare, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, that most Americans obtain medical insurance and replace its income-based subsides with a system of fixed tax credits of $2,000 to $4,000 to coax people to purchase private insurance on the open market.
Insurers questioned the assumptions underlying Republicans’ claims that the plan would reduce premiums, while some experts said it would encourage younger, healthier people to forgo coverage.
In midday trading, hospital stocks were higher, clawing back some of their Tuesday losses after the bill was unveiled. Community Health Systems Inc rose 5 percent and Tenet Healthcare Corp gained 2.1 percent. Health insurer shares were mostly modestly higher, with WellCare Health Plans Inc up 1 percent and Aetna Inc gaining 0.7 percent.
Trump, who endorsed the plan on Tuesday as “wonderful,” planned to meet with conservative congressional leaders to discuss it on Wednesday.
Ryan has guaranteed he has the votes to win House passage, which some Republicans have said is expected before lawmakers recess in April.
But conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton said on MSNBC, “The Senate certainly will not just be jammed with whatever the House sends over here.”
(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer, Eric Walsh, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)