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Murkowski emerges at center of bipartisan Senate health care deal

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks to reporters in September on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski plans to co-sponsor the bipartisan Senate health care deal that emerged Tuesday, after providing behind-the-scenes help to the bill's authors.

Murkowski drew national attention when she joined two other Republicans this summer to stop several GOP-only health care bills from passing. Throughout, she harped on the process — there were no hearings; there was no effort to find a bipartisan solution.

Now, Murkowski is throwing her weight behind one such bipartisan effort, which she said is a small step toward adding security to individual markets and giving states more flexibility.

"We have to acknowledge that this is a challenge we all share and it's our responsibility to address it," Murkowski said in a public statement.

In a detailed interview with Alaska Dispatch News on Tuesday, Murkowski spoke of her role in crafting the bill — often acting as a liaison between the lead Democrat and Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She also spoke of her concerns about some of President Donald Trump's latest moves on health care, and of why she thinks the Republicans' prior efforts didn't work.

On Tuesday, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced an agreement on a bipartisan bill to authorize spending on the Cost Sharing Reductions, or CSRs, that Trump recently canceled, expand lower-cost health insurance offerings, and streamline a waiver process — something they're calling "Alaska for All."

Murkowski said she has been acting as "counsel" for both Alexander and Murray over the course of negotiations.

With Murray, much of it took place on long flights back to Washington. "(Murray) and I often are on the same airplane coming back to D.C. on a Monday morning, and in every one of these airplane conversations," Murkowski encouraged her to "hang in there" in the quest for a bipartisan solution, she said.

"And, you know, in fairness, there were some pretty dark times for anything that could be considered even a bipartisan discussion," Murkowski said.

Some Republicans do feel that anything short of repealing the Affordable Care Act is too little. But Murkowski disagrees. "What we need to do is to address the facts on the ground right now. And the facts on the ground are that the ACA is still in place. And to allow it to just tank and to leave vulnerable people hanging with a failed system is not right for them and their families and as Americans, we need to do better than that," she said.

Despite the president's recent insistence that the ACA is already dead, Murkowski said she is optimistic that he could ultimately support — and sign — the bipartisan bill.

"So my hope is that the president looks at this and says, 'Yep, this is going to be helpful,' " Murkowski said.

She said Trump was right in saying that the CSRs were "illegal," since Congress had not appropriated the funds. That "was a hook that I think that the president was relying on, and in fairness he's absolutely right," she said.

The bipartisan deal appropriates funds for two years to pay the CSRs.

In the day after Alexander and Murray announced the deal, Trump praised the deal, but then again called the CSR payments "bailouts" for insurance companies.

On Tuesday, Murkowski said that she'd heard from Alexander that the president had "encouraged him to continue working, to try to find a bipartisan approach to this."

She questioned the president's decision to cut the subsidies this month, though she said she understands why he did it. "When you end those payments … you send things into a downward spiral that you have to wonder if it's possible to come out of," Murkowski said.

She's also worried about steep cuts to the "navigator" program that helps people sign up for the individual market.

"In a state like Alaska … we don't have insurance companies on every corner in every village. …  And so making budget cuts there kind of sends a signal that they just don't want it to work."

Murkowski said that the best way forward on a bipartisan bill, however, is to stay the course and not worry about whether Trump will decide to back it.

Murkowski hopes the bipartisan Senate negotiations will consider what the governors want, which she said the Republicans failed to do over the summer.

"I think that that was an early downfall for us," she said. "And we all talked about it."

Since then, governors have been meeting to discuss their health care needs and "we're going to see what they recommend," Murkowski said.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, has been involved throughout the process, Murkowski said, heaping praise on his efforts and time spent trying to draw national attention to Alaska's needs and successes.

Alaska Dispatch News columnist Charles Wohlforth contributed to this story. 

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