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McConnell: "We'll let you see the bill when we finally release it." 

GOP senators work behind closed doors to repeal health care law


WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans are facing increasing criticism for ducking public scrutiny as they craft legislation to roll back the Affordable Care Act with little input from outside experts, patients, physicians and others most affected by health care legislation.

The GOP's secretive process marks a sharp departure from the traditional way the Senate has developed large, complex bills, which are often debated for years with multiple committee hearings to ensure broad input and careful analysis.

The closed-door approach, which is even more opaque than the process used earlier this year in the House, is all the more remarkable given the bill's likely effect on tens of millions of Americans, many of whom could see their health insurance protections substantially scaled back or eliminated altogether.

"It is deeply disturbing," said Erika Sward, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association. "Patient groups like ours need to make sure that our patients' needs for health care will be met. ... We can't do that if we can't see what is being proposed."

The lung association is among 120 patient groups that last week sent a letter to senior Republican senators expressing deep concerns about GOP proposals to fundamentally restructure Medicaid, which provides health coverage to more than 70 million poor Americans.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has indicated he wants to vote on a bill in the next two weeks, Senate Republicans thus far haven't disclosed details of their Medicaid plans, or any other part of their health care legislation.

The Affordable Care Act repeal bill passed by the House in May, which has helped guide the Senate discussions, would slash federal health care assistance to low- and moderate-income Americans by nearly $1 trillion and increase the number of uninsured by 23 million over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol last week, McConnell - who had previously vowed a much more open legislative process for the health care bill - denied there was any effort to conceal the Senate legislation.

"We'll let you see the bill when we finally release it," he said. "Nobody's hiding the ball here. You're free to ask anybody anything."

But even some GOP senators have voiced increasing frustration about the lack of public debate about the specifics of how Republicans plan to replace the health care law.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lamented in an interview with online news site Vox last week that she couldn't even answer basic questions about the bill.

"None of us have actually seen language," she said. "My constituents expect me to know, and if we had utilized the process that goes through a committee, I would be able to answer ... my constituents' questions."

It remains unclear if any GOP lawmakers will try to hold up the health care legislation, however, as no Republican senator has yet demanded publicly that McConnell slow down or hold hearings on the legislation.

Before voting, the Senate, unlike the House, will have to wait for an independent analysis from the CBO.

The lack of public debate appears to be a deliberate strategy by McConnell and his lieutenants to minimize opportunities for critical evaluation of their bill, which is likely to be highly controversial.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said holding public hearings about the legislation would only give Democrats more opportunity to attack the bill.

"We have zero cooperation from the Democrats," he said. "So getting it in public gives them a chance to get up and scream."

But interest in the GOP health care legislation extends far beyond Democratic politicians on Capitol Hill.

Major physician groups, hospitals, consumer advocates and organizations representing millions of patients with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other serious illnesses have been pleading with Republican leaders for months to open up the process and listen to their concerns.


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