Koch network pushes private-sector health policies to counter Biden public option
The political advocacy group backed by billionaire Charles Koch is pushing forward with its own health-care agenda as President Joe Biden's administration looks to build on the Affordable Care Act.Americans for Prosperity, which is part of the libertarian Koch network, told CNBC it is engaging with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to gain […]

The political advocacy group backed by billionaire Charles Koch is pushing forward with its own health-care agenda as President Joe Biden's administration looks to build on the Affordable Care Act.

Americans for Prosperity, which is part of the libertarian Koch network, told CNBC it is engaging with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to gain support for its plan.

Called the "personal option," the plan is a collection of policy proposals geared toward the private sector that focuses on tax breaks, expanding health savings accounts and slashing regulations. The plan's name and messaging are intended to contrast with Democrats' push for a public option, which would give people a chance to buy in to a government-run health-care program that would compete with private insurers.

AFP officials started promoting their own health-care idea late last year, including in an op-ed that was published in October. The op-ed was written by Dean Clancy, the group's senior health policy fellow.

So far this year, the group has reached out about its health-care proposals to every member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. This person declined to be named in order to speak freely about private conversations.

Several Republicans responded positively to the idea, including Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and committee members Reps. John Curtis of Utah and Dan Crenshaw of Texas, this person noted.

It is unclear if any Democrats have responded to AFP's most recent engagement when it comes to the personal option. Representatives for the Democratic chairs of both committees did not respond to requests for comment.

The Koch network has long opposed the public option. The new effort also comes as Biden and Democrats in Congress are on the brink of passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan that includes direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans.

The president campaigned on expanding the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, by letting Americans buy into a Medicare-like public option and boosting tax credits for buying coverage, among other measures. A group of Senate Democrats recently reintroduced a bill that pushes for the public option. Biden signed a slate of health-care related executive orders, including one that reopens the ACA's HealthCare.gov for a special, three-month enrollment period.

AFP, along with other center-right organizations, spent millions during former President Barack Obama's administration to take on Obamacare.

Clancy, in an interview with CNBC, admitted that efforts to push back on Obamacare failed, at least in part, because opponents of the government-mandated health-care law never came forward with a viable alternative.

He pointed to the effort led by Republicans in 2017 to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act during former President Donald Trump's administration, which failed when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against the measure.

"I think our side failed in 2017 to lead with our positive alternative when the public was never fully persuaded of a total repeal," Clancy explained on Monday. Clancy said that while he believes many voters weren't in favor of the law, there was no clear solution on the path forward.

"A majority or near majority didn't like the reform, but people were divided on what to do. Repair was always the largest area of support. Repeal had less support, and why? Because our side didn't explain our positive alternative more effectively," Clancy said. "That's what we are trying to change now."

Under Trump, the administration and Republicans successfully repealed the Obamacare's individual mandate. The Supreme Court is set to take on Obamacare for a third time in June.

The Koch network's decision to engage with Democrats on the issue comes as the group tries to take a more bipartisan approach to accomplishing their priorities with Biden in the White House and Democrats having the majority in both chambers of Congress.

The network as a whole has said it is open to backing Democrats, not just on the policy side but also when they run for reelection.

Although the Koch network did not get involved with the 2020 presidential election, the organization as a whole mostly supported Republicans. One of the exceptions was Koch-backed group Libre Action, which recently supported Democrats, including Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, during his successful primary earlier this year. 

Clancy told CNBC that certain elements of AFP's personal option were already supported by some lawmakers. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, among others, are all champions of expanding health savings accounts.

Lee, for instance, recently offered an amendment during the Senate budget "vote-a-rama" that would initiate "expanding access to and qualifications for health savings accounts," according to a press release from his office. The amendment passed, with three "yes" votes from three moderate Democrats: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona.

AFP is planning to reach out to all three Democrats to speak with them about their personal option proposal, according to the person familiar with the matter.

AFP has previously supported ideas that are being advocated by Democrats. The group issued a press release in August highlighting a white paper it co-authored with the Progressive Policy Institute. It encouraged the advancement of telehealth, particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The release included words of encouragement from Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

The group also recently held a live virtual Facebook discussion with Reps. Susan Wild, D-Pa., and Fred Keller, R-Pa. The focus of the talk was on their co-authored Nurses CARES Act.

The bill's release says it would "bolster the workforce pipeline for essential healthcare workers," and it "aims to prevent workforce shortages in long-term care facilities and allow America's essential healthcare workforce to do its important work uninterrupted."

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