ACA won’t go away

The Colorado U.S. se­na­tor faces two-way pres­sure.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark K. Matthews

WASHINGTON» U.S. Sen. Cory Gard­ner is un­der siege.

For weeks, pro­test­ers have ral­lied out­side his of­fices in Washington and Colorado with the de­mand that he op­pose Repub­li­can ef­forts to undo the Af­ford­able Care Act. Sev­eral were ar­rested this week on Capi­tol Hill, join­ing more than a dozen ac­tivists who met a sim­i­lar fate in Colorado.

Mean­while, Gard­ner has faced grow­ing pres­sure from con­ser­va­tives to make good on his campaign prom­ise to re­peal Oba­macare, a goal Gard­ner has sup­ported with dozens of sym­bolic votes since he joined Congress in 2011. That force will be on dis­play this week­end when thou­sands of ac­tivists de­scend on Den­ver for the West­ern Con­ser­va­tive Sum­mit.

Gard­ner will be there, too, though he said in a phone in­ter­view with The Den­ver Post that health care won’t be the main topic when he takes the stage Fri­day for a prime-time speech.

“What I usu­ally do at this event is talk about those things that unite us as Amer­i­cans,” he said.

It’s the lat­est ex­am­ple of the hun­ker-down strat­egy that Gard­ner has shown through­out the health care de­bate.

Since be­ing named this spring to a 13-mem­ber Repub­li­can group as­signed to tackle the is­sue, Gard­ner hasn’t spo­ken sub­stan­tially about du­el­ing plans to dis­man­tle the Af­ford­able Care Act — not once re­veal­ing whether he would sup-

port any of the draft ver­sions cir­cu­lat­ing on Capi­tol Hill.

His most an­i­mated mo­ment, per­haps, came Tues­day when he vented about the re­ac­tion to re­ports that the Se­nate bill had stalled out.

“There are a lot of people out there to­day who seem to be spik­ing the foot­ball,” Gard­ner said. “Try­ing to cel­e­brate a mo­ment that — for now — seems to leave the Af­ford­able Care Act in place.”

But Gard­ner soon could have no choice but to lower the draw­bridge and make pub­lic his po­si­tion.

De­spite the loom­ing pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure, Repub­li­can lead­ers said they want to vote next week on some man­ner of health care leg­is­la­tion.

Cur­rently, there are two main op­tions.

One would be a ver­sion of the bill that Repub­li­cans have bat­ted around for weeks and that an­a­lysts at the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mated would grow the num­ber of unin­sured Amer­i­cans by 22 mil­lion people over the next decade.

The other would be a re­peal bill that would sweep away the Af­ford­able Care Act with­out a re­place­ment — sim­i­lar to a 2015 mea­sure that Gard­ner and nearly ev­ery other Repub­li­can se­na­tor sup­ported. Nei­ther is likely to pass. Even be­fore U.S. Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ariz., was side­lined with brain cancer, Se­nate Repub­li­cans could lose the sup­port of only two GOP law­mak­ers to pass a health care bill with a bare ma­jor­ity. That mar­gin is even slim­mer now, and enough Repub­li­can sen­a­tors have voiced op­po­si­tion to each plan that — bar­ring a ma­jor change in pol­icy or po­si­tion — both will fail with Democrats united in op­po­si­tion.

Gard­ner, for his part, said he re­mains un­de­cided on both pro­pos­als, though he voiced a pref­er­ence for leg­is­la­tion that did more than sim­ply un­wind the 2010 health care law.

“I would pre­fer a so­lu­tion that would be a re­place­ment for the fail­ing Af­ford­able Care Act,” Gard­ner said.

He would not say, how­ever, whether he would vote for a straight re­peal bill — even if it were a car­bon copy of the 2015 leg­is­la­tion that he backed while Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was in of­fice with the power to veto it.

“I don’t think I’m go­ing to spec­u­late on that, be­cause I don’t know that’s what would come up and I don’t want to say that I’m go­ing to vote for this, that or the other be­fore I see it and be­fore I know what’s in it,” Gard­ner said.

But he echoed other Repub­li­can leader in ar­gu­ing the Se­nate should vote no mat­ter what, even in the face of likely de­feat.

“I don’t see why any­body should be con­cerned about fight­ing for leg­is­la­tion that they be­lieve will do better than what we have,” Gard­ner said. “If you look back at his­tory and you see what (Demo­crat and for­mer Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader) Harry Reid did by try­ing to protect his mem­bers from tough votes and mak­ing de­ci­sion on big is- sues, it did not work.”

Gard­ner’s opin­ion takes on added sig­nif­i­cance given his own po­lit­i­cal fu­ture and the role of get­ting his col­leagues re­elected as chair of the Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee.

A no vote would draw con­dem­na­tion from con­ser­va­tives and po­ten­tial pri­mary chal­lengers. A yes vote would fur­ther en­er­gize lib­eral and Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion and set the stage for fu­ture at­tack ads. Either op­tion is made worse po­lit­i­cally if the vote fails and the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress is un­able to fol­low up with any­thing sub­stan­tial.

“What’s go­ing on now will prob­a­bly af­fect Repub­li­can for­tunes for the next 20 years,” said Dan Caplis, a talk show host with 710 KNUS who is sched­uled to do his show Fri­day at the West­ern Con­ser­va­tive Sum­mit. “Either the GOP gets it right (and) right now or it pays the price for decades.”

He blamed the cur­rent im­passe on poor plan­ning by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in large part be­cause GOP power bro­kers didn’t ex­pect Don­ald Trump to cap­ture the pres­i­dency.

“Where the GOP failed so mis­er­ably was to be pre­pared with a com­pre­hen­sive plan,” said Caplis, who added that the Repub­li­cans had better re­cover quickly. “If the GOP can’t turn these lemons into lemon­ade, there is go­ing to be a big price to be paid.”

While con­ser­va­tives de­bate the best way for­ward in­side the Colorado Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, ac­tivists with the lib­eral group In­di­vis­i­ble Front Range Re­sis­tance plan to cir­cle the gather­ing in five hearses as a way to high­light the num­ber of Coloradans who stand to lose their in­surance un­der the Se­nate Repub­li­can plans.

“Health care is a mat­ter of life and death, and we want to make sure that mes­sage is out there,” said Katie Far­nan, one of the or­ga­niz­ers.

Un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act, Colorado added more than 400,000 res­i­dents to the Med­i­caid rolls, a crit­i­cal fac­tor in driv­ing down the num­ber of Coloradans with­out health in­surance from 15.8 per­cent in 2011 to 6.7 per­cent in 2015.

That’s helped to halve the cost of “un­com­pen­sated care” at Colorado hos­pi­tals — whose ERs must treat pa­tients re­gard­less of in­surance sta­tus — from $2.3 bil­lion in 2009 to $1.1 bil­lion in 2015.

But Gard­ner and other Repub­li­cans said they worry about the fu­ture fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity of Med­i­caid as well as how best to con­trol pre­mium costs on the in­di­vid­ual in­surance mar­ket, which are ex­pected to see rates rise about 27 per­cent more on av­er­age in Colorado partly be­cause of un­cer­tainty over what Congress might do next.

“What I’m look­ing for, broadly speak­ing, (is) to make sure that we make Med­i­caid sus­tain­able,” Gard­ner said. “I was very con­cerned that when the Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion oc­curred that … states and the fed­eral govern­ment would find it dif­fi­cult to con­tinue to fund.”

To do that, Gard­ner ex­pressed gen­eral sup­port for the idea of in­sti­tut­ing a per-capita cap on Med­i­caid spend­ing — a fix­ture of Se­nate Repub­li­can plans for health care.

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