After a rather bleak year, there are a few rays of hope for the U.S. individual health insurance market.

The Senate shot down Affordable Care Act repeal bills last week, and now Senate Republicans and Democrats are talking about cooperating on improvements to the existing law.

Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Senator who can hardly be accused of being a wild-eyed liberal, announced a bipartisan meeting in September to stabilize insurance markets in 2018.

Like other parts of the country, a lot of people in Tennessee have come to rely on ACA insurance policies. And Alexander, while a staunch opponent of Obamacare, has no intention of setting them adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

Also, credit Senator John McCain with nixing the most recent bid to strip away the real meat of the ACA, ditching the individual mandate and opening up an opportunity for insurers to squeeze customers with pre-existing conditions. He was one of three Republican senators to oppose the final bill and his dramatic thumbs-down vote became a viral video clip.

Some accused McCain of being hypocritical because he actually voted for the first repeal-and-replace bill considered by the Senate, the one drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell behind closed doors.

But McCain’s positions were consistent. He returned to Washington to vote in favor of opening debate on a replacement bill, a measure that passed with a 51-50 margin with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaker. That’s because McCain is a right-of-center politician, but he believes in the American system of government.

So he approved starting the debate, and supported the McConnell bill because senators had an opportunity to debate it in open session. He voted against the final “skinny” bill for two reasons. One, the bill was a sham because nobody in Congress — either in the House or the Senate — wanted it passed into law. So why would you vote for something that you don’t want passed into law?

At the same time, the no vote allowed McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, to stick it to President Trump for the rather nasty comment during the campaign: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

McCain knew Trump would be watching the video of his vote, and if he could have done it, he probably would have liked to have looked directly into the camera when he pointed thumbs down.

His vote was really a twofer. It was principled, yet at the same time it carried an element of revenge for McCain.

The potential winners — more or less coincidentally, I suppose — are Americans who rely on the individual health insurance market. Because if Alexander and other Republicans can rally enough support for a fix-it bill, customers will be looking at a lot more options next year along with more moderate price increases.

There’s still a long way to go, but if enough bipartisan support comes together there won’t be any “holes” in the insurance exchange — counties where there are no insurance choices. That was a very real possibility that market analysts have been warning about.

It still could happen if insurance companies go into the enrollment period rattled by fear of the unknown.

Long-term solutions to the U.S. health care fiasco remain elusive, and the best we can hope for is a clearer picture for 2018. We’ll take what we can get.

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