Lamar Alexander part of short-term deal to restore Obamacare subsidies

In this Jan. 31, 2017 file photo, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tenn., accompanied by the committee's ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, Wash., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Millions of people who buy individual health insurance policies and get no government help for premiums are facing another year of double-digit premium increases and frustration is boiling over. (AP Photo/ Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — Two leading senators said Tuesday they have the “basic outlines” of a bipartisan agreement to resume federal payments to health insurers that President Donald Trump has blocked. Both said in separate interviews that they still have unresolved issues but expressed optimism that a compromise was near.

The agreement would involve a two-year extension of federal payments to insurers that the Trump administration halted last week, said Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Unless the money is quickly restored, insurers and others say that will result in higher premiums for people buying individual policies and in some carriers leaving unprofitable markets.

In exchange, Republicans want Congress to give states “meaningful” flexibility to ease some coverage requirements under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“The definition of meaningful,” Alexander said when asked what the remaining stumbling blocks were.

Alexander agreed with his negotiating partner, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who said the two lawmakers “have the basic outlines” of an agreement but have differences to bridge.

The two senators planned to brief colleagues in separate GOP and Democratic Senate lunches. Alexander chairs the Senate health committee and Murray is that panel’s top Democrat.

Murray and Alexander began talks on extending the payments months ago, when President Trump was frequently threatening to stop the subsidies. Both said they were close to a deal, but GOP leaders shut the effort down in September when the Senate revisited the Republican drive to repeal Obama’s law. The repeal effort failed, as did an earlier GOP attempt to dismantle the law in July.

The halt of the payments and worries about its impact have galvanized lawmakers in both parties to take action to prevent it.

Even so, strong opposition by some conservatives means the congressional fate of a compromise would be uncertain. For their part, Democrats believe Republicans in control of Washington will be blamed by voters for future health care problems and are reluctant to bend too far toward GOP demands for opening loopholes in Obama’s law.

Alexander said President Trump has twice in recent days urged him to reach a deal with Murray.

“He says he doesn’t want people to be hurt in this interim,” said Alexander, a reference to President Trump’s desire to revisit the effort to scrap Obama’s statute next year.

President Trump repeated his gloomy assessment of a law that’s expanded health coverage to 20 million people and required insurers to cover specified services and limit costs, but has also seen premiums rise and limited competition in some regions.

“Obamacare is virtually dead. At best you could say it’s in its final legs. The premiums are going through the roof. The deductibles are so high that people don’t get to use it. Obamacare is a disgrace to our nation and we are solving the problem of Obamacare,” he told reporters in the Oval Office.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said President Trump’s stoppage of the payments “showed that he’s willing to take a wrecking ball to our nation’s health care for the sake of politics.” He said congressional support for an agreement between Alexander and Murray would show lawmakers have “no intention of going along with President Trump’s reckless sabotage of the nation’s health care law.”

Under Obama’s 2010 overhaul, the government must pay insurers for reducing out-of-pocket expenses for lower-earning customers.

A federal judge has ruled that Congress hadn’t legally approved the payments, but President Obama — and initially President Trump — continued them anyway. They were halted them last week, even though by law insurers must continue reducing costs for lower-income consumers.

The President and some Republicans consider the payments to be bailouts to carriers. But Democrats and some Republicans say halting them will create chaos in insurance market places.

The so-called cost-sharing reductions cost around $7 billion this year and lower expenses like co-payments and deductibles for more than 6 million people.