GOP talks about keeping individual mandate in health care reform effort

While most of the headlines and questions in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol in recent days have been about President Donald Trump and the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, GOP Senators continue to work behind the scenes in a bid to forge their own version of a bill to make major changes in the Obama health law.

"The issues that are out there are workable; I don't see any reason that we can't get this done," said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who is one of the strongest allies of President Trump in the Senate.

With the calendar already at mid-May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted to his colleagues this week that they need to get moving on a plan soon.

"We can't take forever," McConnell said, as Republicans try to figure out how to forge a deal that can get a Senate majority.

On Wednesday, there was a surprise trial balloon from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who said that he was open to keeping the individual mandate - which is maybe the most hated provision among Republicans, as it requires individuals to buy health insurance or face a tax penalty from the IRS.

Hatch, who is chairman of the important Senate Finance Committee, is a key player in these health care negotiations - but keeping the individual mandate would seemingly be a tough thing to swallow for many Republicans, especially since they denounced it so regularly over the last seven years.

Already, some GOP Senators have said they are open to keeping some of the taxes under Obamacare, raising the possibility that the Senate plan may be more of a reform of existing law, and much less of a repeal of the Obama health law.

New data from the feds out earlier this week showed that 9 percent of Americans were now without health insurance, the lowest percentage rate ever, and down from 16 percent when the Obama health law was approved.

But - that 9 percent still means many people are without health insurance, even with Obamacare in place.

"On the other hand, progress in covering the uninsured under the ACA seems to have stalled at about 20 million people," said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a fresh reminder of how the Obama health law hasn't solved all health access problems.

While Republicans try to forge their own bill, a smaller bipartisan group is also exploring a possible deal, though the chances for an agreement still seem like a long shot.

"We continue to push forward and we continue to think there's a compelling reason for Republicans and Democrats to be involved," said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a doctor who has spearheaded efforts to find some common ground on health care.

"Every time an insurance company announces another premium increase, of a CEO tells me he will be 40 percent on top of that if things don't change, then we think there's an even more compelling reason," Cassidy added.

While a couple of Democrats have been talking with Cassidy, there are no signs of any emerging deal - as the talks have included Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) - they would be considered by many to be the most likely Democrats to work with the GOP on health care details.

For Republicans in the Senate, finding a deal on health care is going to become just as consuming as it was in the House a few short weeks ago, as the Majority Leader is correct - they can't wait forever to act.

"The foundation of Obamacare is broken," said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).

How the GOP moves to fix that - and finds enough votes in the Senate - remains an open question.

And Republicans don't have the luxury of an extended debate to figure that out.

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