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House chairman skeptical of conservatives’ health care idea

BEND, Ore. — A House committee chairman who’s a leading author of the mired Republican health care bill said Thursday he’s skeptical about proposals the Trump administration and conservative GOP lawmakers have discussed in hopes of breathing life into the legislation.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., directed his skepticism at suggestions that states be allowed to sidestep the ban in President Barack Obama’s health care law against insurers charging seriously ill people higher premiums than healthy customers.

Conservatives say that provision is one of many in Obama’s 2010 statute that drives up premiums. Critics say eliminating that prohibition would in effect make coverage unattainable for many ill consumers because insurers would be free to charge them unaffordable rates.

“I’d have to be convinced,” Walden said in an interview with The Associated Press. “This is one you’d have to show me and prove to me that someone with a pre-existing condition is going to have the same quality and affordability of coverage that they have today.”

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Walden carried the same message at a raucous town hall Thursday evening in Bend, a fairly liberal town at the foot of the Cascade Range. Constituents packed a high school gymnasium and clashed with him on issues like gun control, health care, immigration and the environment.

A high school student said he is concerned about climate change and the environment, drawing cheers. The more than 2,000 people present stomped in the bleachers in approval.

Walden said he is not a climate change denier and supports renewable energy. But later in the almost two-hour encounter, he expressed support for the pipeline through North Dakota whose construction was halted amid protests in the Obama administration, but later approved by Trump. The crowd booed. Walden defended his position, saying it was better for oil to pass through a pipeline than to be carried by rail, citing derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude last year in the pristine Columbia River Gorge.

He characterized the Republican’s health care bill as “a work in progress. It needs to be improved.” He said he never wants to go back to the times when a person with pre-existing medical conditions was denied insurance or faced unaffordable premiums. Some listeners shouted that America should have single-payer national health insurance.

“I disagree with what he said,” Rick Negus, a retired social worker, said as he left the Mountain View High School gym. “But I respect him for speaking his mind in front of a hostile audience.”

The White House and leaders of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus have discussed adding language to the GOP health care bill to let states seek federal waivers to that prohibition. They’ve also talked about letting states escape Obama’s requirement that insurers cover specified treatments, such as drug abuse services.

Walden is influential because he is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wrote much of the health care bill. It’s been on life support since last month. Opposition from both conservative and moderate Republicans prompted House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to cancel a vote on the bill, an embarrassment for Ryan and President Donald Trump.

Talks aimed at breaking the impasse have continued during Congress’ two-week recess. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the Freedom Caucus, has said progress has been made but there are no clear indications a deal is near. After weeks of negotiations, proposals aimed at wooing conservatives have often ended up alienating moderate GOP lawmakers.

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Walden said leaders have “not yet” concocted a way of gaining votes from one end of the party’s spectrum without losing people from the other. But he said he had spoken to Ryan earlier Thursday and that “there are people talking.”

“Knowing the views of the conference, if you go too far one way, you lose people” who agreed to an earlier version of the bill, Walden said of House Republicans.

Walden has been attending town hall meetings across his huge eastern Oregon district this week. Opposition to the GOP health care bill has been a heated topic raised by some of those constituents.

Walden on Thursday became one of 10 mostly moderate House GOP lawmakers targeted in ads by the conservative Club for Growth. The spots accuse those Republicans of blocking the party’s effort to repeal Obama’s law and show Trump at a speech saying, “We gotta get it done.”

Asked about those ads, Walden said: “They probably have some big funder who wants to make a point, so that’s what’s happening. That’s fine. It’s democracy.”

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Associated Press writer Andrew Selsky contributed to this report.


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