GOP lacks clear health-care plan

Republicans have announced the first item on their agenda, which is to repeal the Obama administration's health care overhaul bill passed last year.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 5:51 PM

With the House preparing to vote this week on whether to repeal the health-care law, the chamber's new Republican majority is confronting a far more delicate task: forging its own path to expand medical coverage and curb costs.

The House's GOP leaders have made clear that they regard the repeal vote, scheduled to begin Tuesday, as the prelude to a two-prong strategy that is likely to last throughout the year, or longer.

They intend to take apart some of the sprawling law, which Democrats pushed through Congress last year, piece by piece before major aspects of it go into effect. At the same time, Republicans say, they will come up with their own plan to revise the health-care system, tailored along more conservative lines.

On the cusp of undertaking this work, the GOP has a cupboard of health-care ideas, most going back a decade or more. They include tax credits to help Americans afford insurance, limiting awards in medical malpractice lawsuits and unfettering consumers from rules that require them to buy state-regulated insurance policies. In broad strokes, the approach favors the health-care marketplace over government programs and rules.

House Republicans have termed their strategy "repeal and replace." But according to GOP House leaders, senior aides and conservative health policy specialists, Republicans have not distilled their ideas into a coherent plan.

"Replacing 'Obamacare' is not something we can accomplish overnight," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, using the GOP's pejorative term for the new law. "We want to get it right, and on complex issues like these with huge consequences for the economy and jobs and spending, that means it may take time. But mark my words, we will get this done."

Compared with similar efforts in the past, Republicans acknowledge, their work will be complicated by a fiscal and political climate in which a reduction in the near-record federal budget deficit is a priority. "The biggest difference in health care is, we are bankrupt up here, and states are bankrupt," said one senior House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the chamber's preliminary thinking.

In the absence of a plan, Republican leaders nevertheless are eager to convey that they have ideas about health care - and are not merely trying to knock down those of the Democrats. As a result, they have drafted a resolution to accompany the repeal legislation. It lays out broad, long-held GOP health-care goals, but no specifics, and directs four House committees to develop proposals.

Even Democrats acknowledge that the GOP has enough votes to pass the repeal measure and the resolution. But there is no evidence that such victories would spill over into the Senate, where Democrats remain in the majority. And President Obama, for whom health-care reform is a major domestic accomplishment, will be in office at least two more years. The White House has said he would veto any repeal.

Similarities, differences

House committees plan to conduct hearings to single out parts of the new law for criticism - starting within weeks with those pieces they say could harm jobs - and to develop their own proposals.

A particular challenge for Republicans is how to handle the possible effect of removing the law's requirement, as they have vowed to do, that most Americans carry health insurance starting in 2014, said Mark B. McClellan, director of the Brookings Institution's Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform, who held several senior health-care positions in the George W. Bush administration. He said the GOP would need to be careful to find other ways to deter people from drifting in and out of the insurance market, depending on whether they need care.

The clearest signs of recent Republican preferences can be gleaned from a remnant of the last health-care debate: a House GOP proposal drafted in late 2009 to try to counter the Democratic legislation that became law last March. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the new Ways and Means Committee chairman, was a chief co-sponsor of that alternative.

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