Republicans are looking for a new message and platform to replace their longtime call to repeal and replace ObamaCare, after efforts failed in the last Congress and left them empty-handed in the 2018 midterm elections.
Republican strategists concede that Democrats dominated the health care debate heading into Election Day, helping them pick up 40 seats in the House.
President Trump hammered away on immigration in the fall campaign, which helped Senate Republican candidates win in conservative states but proved less effective in suburban swing areas, which will be crucial in the 2020 election.
While Trump is focused on raising the profile of illegal immigration during a standoff over the border wall, other Republicans are quietly looking for a better strategy on health care, which is usually a top polling issue.
“Health care is such a significant part of our economy and the challenges are growing so great with the retirement of the baby boomers and the disruption brought about by ObamaCare that you can’t just cede a critically important issue to the other side,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
“Republicans need a positive vision about what should happen to lower costs, expand access and protect pre-existing conditions,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to answer the question, ‘So what do you think we should do about health care?’ ”
A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that 49 percent of respondents nationwide said government should tackle health care as a top priority, second only to economic concerns.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed to lower prescription drug costs, but the Republican-controlled Congress over the past couple of years focused on other matters. House Democrats who are now in the majority say they are willing to work with the White House on drug pricing, but it’s unclear if Republicans will take on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, long considered a GOP ally.
Republican candidates made the repeal of ObamaCare their main message in the 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections. But after repeal legislation collapsed with the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) famous “no” vote, the party’s message became muddled and Democrats went on the offensive.
Some Republicans continued to work on alternative legislation, such as a Medicaid block grant bill sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (La.), but it failed to gain much traction and the GOP health care message was left in limbo.
“We should be the guys and gals that are putting up things that make health care more affordable and more accessible,” said Jim McLaughlin, another Republican pollster. “No question Democrats had an advantage over us on health care, which they never should have had because they’re the ones that gave us the unpopular ObamaCare.”
“We need to take it to the next level,” he added. “You can’t get [ObamaCare] repealed. Let’s do things that will make health care more affordable and more accessible.”
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), says finding an answer to that question will be his top priority in the weeks ahead.
Alexander will be meeting soon with Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health Committee, as well as Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, to explore solutions for lowering health care costs.
“I’ll be meeting with senators on reducing health care costs,” Alexander told The Hill in a recent interview. “At a time when one-half of our health care spending is unnecessary, according to the experts, we ought to be able to agree in a bipartisan way to reduce that.”