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Health Team

Pressure up on Arizona senators as new health bill unveiled

Posted July 13

— A new U.S. Senate version of a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act retains major cuts to Medicaid and will not ease pressure on Arizona's senators to oppose the measure.

Opposition to the Medicaid cuts was highlighted Thursday when moderate state Republican lawmakers were joined at Phoenix Children's Hospital by a Phoenix Chamber of Commerce official and a physician who highlighted the costs to the state of the rollbacks.

"There's a common misperception that the Medicaid program only serves the low-income," said Dr. Jared Muenzer, an emergency room physician at the hospital. "But Medicaid is a critical program for not only low-income children; it's a program that subsidizes the sickest kids in need of very costly care, even if they have commercial insurance."

Republican U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain have been under pressure from the state hospital association, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and even Gov. Doug Ducey to make changes to the Medicaid proposal.

Ducey has been working quietly to boost pressure on the senators, with his office releasing a letter to them outlining changed to the Medicaid proposal he is seeking and the state Medicaid agency releasing an analysis highlighting $7.1 billion in funding losses through 2026 under the current proposal.

McCain on Wednesday called on Congress to work on the health overhaul legislation and a federal budget through the summer recess. He issued a statement Thursday saying he would offer amendments to address Ducey's concerns.

"The revised Senate health care bill released today does not include the measures I have been advocating for on behalf of the people of Arizona,:" McCain said. "That's why if the Senate takes up this legislation, I intend to file amendments that would address the concerns raised by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and other leaders across our state about the bill's impact on Arizona's Medicaid system."

Flake, who is up for re-election next year and considered politically vulnerable, has mainly avoided public comment on repealing former President Barack Obama's health care law in recent weeks.

This week, however, Flake said he supported an amendment offered by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to allow insurers to offer a skimpier plan on the individual marketplace. But Flake hasn't taken a position on the overall bill and told The Arizona Republic Wednesday that his focus is on making individual insurance more affordable.

In a statement Thursday, the senator's office reiterated his support for the amendment but said that is not indicative of how he will vote on the bill.

"Senator Flake's decision will be based on how the bill balances two principles," the statement said. "The first is that the legislation needs to ensure that those who currently have coverage do not have the rug pulled out from under them. The second is that the Senate must agree on a solution that is fiscally sustainable."

The new Senate version backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and released Thursday bids for conservative support by allowing insurers to sell low-cost, slimmed-down policies and added billions to combat opioid abuse and help cut skyrocketing insurance costs.

That threatens to alienate moderates and perhaps other conservatives. And the measure retains cuts in Medicaid — the health insurance plan for the poor, disabled and nursing home patients — that moderate Republican senators have fought.

At Phoenix Children's Hospital on Thursday, state Sen. Heather Carter, a Republican from Cave Creek, said cutting Medicaid threatens 400,000 people who have gained insurance through the Affordable Care Act's coverage expansion and also the state's health care system as a whole.

"The number of Arizonans with health care is up, uncompensated care is down by 60 percent at hospitals statewide and billions of federal dollars, which are Arizona tax dollars, are flowing into our economy," carter said. "Now we are here today because all of that is at risk."

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