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Advocate coalition says groups feel ignored by Hatch, Lee in AHCA deliberations

FILE - Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the editorial board at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. The Healthier Utah Coalition's member organizations are disheartened by what they believe is the U.S. Senat
FILE - Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the editorial board at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. The Healthier Utah Coalition's member organizations are disheartened by what they believe is the U.S. Senate's secretive handling of the American Health Care Act, a bill that they have deep reservations about.
Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Healthier Utah Coalition's member organizations are disheartened by what they believe is the U.S. Senate's secretive handling of the American Health Care Act, a bill that they have deep reservations about.

And it is a sentiment that Sen. Mike Lee apparently has himself. Lee told constituents in a Facebook Live video Tuesday that "if you are frustrated by the lack of transparency in this process, I share your frustration."

Coalition members — including representatives from AARP, Utah Health Policy Project, Voices for Utah's Children and the Utah Disability Law Center — told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday that Sens. Orrin Hatch and Lee are not listening to them as credible stakeholders in health care reform.

Micah Vorwaller, health policy analyst for the Utah Health Policy Project, said the usual flow of information between that organization and Utah's congressional leaders, normally constant, has dried up as the American Health Care Act has taken center stage in health care reform.

"We (typically) receive a lot of contacts from our federal delegates and staff asking for … information and data," Vorwaller said. "But (not now). When no one's really asking or listening or accepting, we become even more concerned. … What are our federal delegates doing if they don't want Utah-specific information to be part of their input?"

Representatives of both senators are adamant they have been responsive to concerns and Utah statistical reports, but Lee and Hatch are split about whether the bill, the text of which has not been formally considered in Senate committees since passing the U.S. House on May 4, has been handled openly.

Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock told the Deseret News that criticism of the bill as covert is "not based in precedent or reality," and characterized the bill's drafting behind the scenes as a typical legislative process.

Andrew Riggle, public policy advocate for the Utah Disability Law Center, identified a recent meeting with Lee's staff as a disappointing experience for advocates who are worried about the American Health Care Act and the Medicaid cuts it includes.

"I felt like the conversation essentially was a repetition of the talking points that we hear," Riggle said. "And when we raised questions about what will this mean, or how do you envision this working, or what the consequences of this, that or the other thing be, the response was essentially, well that will be up to the states to figure out."

Lee spokeswoman Conn Carroll said a staff member over health care legislative affairs recently met with the advocacy groups.

"Our legislative staffer took diligent notes on the meeting which I just viewed, and followed up with each group, a number of which sent our staff further information about their claims," Carroll said in an email.

Carroll said it is difficult to go into a lot of specifics when discussing the bill with stakeholders because it will likely have significant amendments by the time Lee sees it. Lee is just as upset about that as anyone, she said.

"We don't have the text for the bill yet, which Sen. Lee is very disappointed about, so any talk of amendments to the bill would be premature at this point," Carroll said.

Whitlock said Hatch "has met with lawmakers and stakeholders of all political persuasions both in Washington and in Utah."

"Any claims about a lack of transparency are not based in precedent or reality," he said in an email. "Nor do they take account of the fact that this issue has now been debated for nearly a decade. Republicans in Congress will fulfill the promises they made to the American people.”

Whitlock promised the senator was committed to not rushing the passage of any legislation.

"Once legislation has been introduced, the Senate will hold an open amendment process, and senators will not vote on any bill until (the Congressional Budget Office) has had an opportunity to score it, as is common practice with large legislative proposals that cross committee jurisdictions," he said.

Lee is upset that he and other senators haven't been given a chance to assist in writing the bill, as was his original expectation.

"I haven’t seen the bill, and it has become increasingly apparent in the last few days that even though we thought we were going to be in charge of writing a bill within (a) working group, it’s not being written by us," Lee said in the video posted to Facebook Live. "It’s apparently being written by a small handful of staffers for members of the Republican leadership in the Senate."

Whitlock confirmed that Hatch and his staff are among the small group Lee referred to as having seen the bill.

“As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over health care issues, Senator Hatch and his staff have been involved in the drafting process for several weeks,” he said.