Murkowski skeptical, Sullivan hopeful about progress on Senate health care bill

WASHINGTON — Alaska's Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan do not appear equally optimistic in the progress of Senate leadership toward crafting legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Murkowski said Thursday that there is no bill language, and while her party's leadership may agree on general concepts, the details aren't there. Sullivan thinks a vote could come soon — but he's also pushing for a shortened August recess and more time to work.

On Tuesday, Senate leadership presented an outline of ideas and options for health care legislation to Republicans in a lunch meeting. Some senators came out of that meeting more optimistic than before, according to multiple reports.

But Alaska's senators made clear that plenty more work remains, especially to deal with the unique, high-cost health insurance problems faced by the 49th state.

The meeting Tuesday included "an overview of kind of policy goals, and so in terms of specific details, it was pretty general," Murkowski said. "One of the goals is reduce cost. Oh! Well, of course we're all in agreement here. But how do you reduce the costs? That's where the devil is in the detail there."

Murkowski said the negotiations are headed where she'd like, but only because they are "so general" — increasing access to health insurance, decreasing costs, making sure that there is stability and certainty for people who have insurance coverage.

[White House hails Obamacare's demise even as insurers seek help stabilizing marketplace]

After the lunch meeting Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a press conference that the party is "getting closer to having a proposal," and would bring something up for a vote "in the near future."

"I think they're trying," Murkowski said. "But I think it's fair to say that there is still a wide divergence of views on a great deal of what is under discussion, whether it is how we deal with Medicaid expansion, how we deal with pre-existing conditions, how we deal with tax credits. So, yes, the majority leader would like to put something on paper."

Sullivan was more optimistic in an interview Thursday.

"I think we're making some progress there, and I continue to raise concerns that deal with some of the structural challenges in a state like Alaska," he said. That includes the discrepancies in costs faced by Alaskans, including those who make too much to receive federal subsidies, and yet the high-dollar "premium increases … are literally crushing the economic life out of them."

Sullivan said he thinks that a bill will be up for a vote soon.

"I was in meetings all morning," he said, noting groups he joined, including senators from states that expanded Medicaid, and another run by Republican leadership.

"Is there a consensus to get 51 senators? I don't know yet. But we're certainly working on it," Sullivan said.

Sullivan was hopeful the those bipartisan meetings he has attended could inform consensus legislation.

But Murkowski said that Republican leadership wasn't pointing the ship in that direction.

"I think what is fair to say is there hasn't been a level of outreach from the leadership to the folks on the other side," she said.

Murkowski also wasn't so sure about a vote before August recess — about 30 legislative working days remain until then.

"I don't want to do anything precipitous that is going to harm Alaskans and their access and their affordability," she said.

Sullivan said that given the weighty Republican agenda, he has been pushing Republican leadership to add more working days to the calendar.

"So I think we should create more time. … Let's cancel the recess, or at least trim it down. It'll give us six more weeks. We need more time. Let's work. Let's work weekends," he said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.