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House conservatives closer to embracing Republican U.S. healthcare plan | Reuters

 House conservatives closer to embracing Republican U.S. healthcare plan
| Reuters

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON Conservative U.S. Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday they were close to embracing their party's healthcare overhaul plan after the White House signalled openness to ending an expansion of the government health insurance programme for the poor even sooner than proposed.Vice President Mike Pence met behind closed doors with the Republican Study Committee, the biggest group of House of Representatives conservatives, as the White House and Republican leaders strove to shore up support for the legislation backed by President Donald Trump.The bill's prospects remain uncertain. Many conservatives have rebelled against it, arguing in part that key provisions are too close to the Obamacare law it is intended to supplant. Democrats are unified against it, major medical providers have condemned it and moderate Republicans have expressed unease.Representative Mark Walker, who leads the group, said that during the meeting lawmakers were told to be hopeful that some of the changes they sought in the Medicaid programme for the poor would be made in the bill. Conservatives want an Obamacare Medicaid expansion to end sooner than currently proposed and to introduce work Medicaid requirements for able-bodied adults without children.The group's members are "very close to signing off" on the legislation, Walker told reporters after the Pence meeting.Republicans control both Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade. But the bill, the Republicans' first major piece of legislation under Trump, has not been an easy sell to conservatives.Republican Representative Phil Roe said after the Pence meeting the bill probably would be changed to move up by one year, to 2019, the end of the Medicaid expansion. Obamacare enabled about 20 million previously uninsured Americans to obtain medical insurance, about half through the Medicaid expansion.Just hours earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who unveiled the legislation last week and is its main champion in Congress, said its chief elements would not be changed.

Ryan said he was open to making "improvements and refinements," especially after an assessment on Monday by the Congressional Budget Office, which said millions of Americans would soon lose their health insurance under the plan."Obviously, the major components are staying intact because this is something we wrote with President Trump. This is something we wrote with the Senate committees," Ryan told the Fox Business Network.Senate Republicans voiced rising unease."As written, the House bill would not pass the Senate. But I believe we can fix it," Texas Senator Ted Cruz told reporters.

"It is mortally wounded," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC's "Today" show.The conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks held a rally amid snow flurries and a frigid wind outside the Capitol where several House and Senate Republicans including Cruz and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky voiced dissatisfaction with the bill.Afterward, Paul told reporters "the White House has been much more open to negotiation on this" than House leaders. Trump on Monday promised "a big, fat, beautiful negotiation" over the plan, the first major legislative initiative of his presidency.

The CBO, a nonpartisan congressional agency, forecast on Monday the plan would increase the number of Americans without health insurance by 24 million by 2026, while cutting $337 billion off federal budget deficits over the same period.The legislation guts key provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement popularly called Obamacare.Many conservatives also have called the bill's age-based tax credits to help people buy private insurance on the open market an unwise new government entitlement.Two House committees last week approved the bill's provisions with no changes. The Budget Committee on Thursday will try to unify the plan into a single bill for consideration on the House floor. Republicans cannot afford to lose more than three from their ranks on the committee for it to pass. Three committee Republicans are members of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus.Shares of hospitals traded broadly higher, with Community Health Systems (CYH.N) rising 3.5 percent. Health insurer shares also gained, with Anthem (ANTM.N) up 2.6 percent after the insurer also backed its full-year profit forecast. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released data showing enrollment in the individual insurance plans created under Obamacare have declined to 12.2 million Americans.As of the end of January, enrollment in these individual insurance plans was down by about 500,000 people from 2016, it said. It is about 1.6 million people short of Obama's goal for 2017 sign-ups, the government said. (Additional reporting by David Morgan, Lewis Krauskopf, Caroline Humer; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 04:46:31 IST