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Democrats Expect Pre-Existing Conditions Defense Will Resonate in 2018

Schumer highlighting DOJ decision not to defend pillars of 2010 health care law

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., says his conference will keep focusing on health care. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., says his conference will keep focusing on health care. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats have seized on the Justice Department’s announcement that it will not defend the 2010 health care law’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, sensing an opening for the midterms.

House Democratic leaders have scheduled a Wednesday afternoon press conference to push against the determination announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and that opposition looks to be a key pillar of the strategy of Senate Democrats and their supporters going into the fall.

American Bridge, for instance, on Tuesday announced new digital ads on the issue for Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Of those, the ads in Missouri and West Virginia might be the most interesting. In both states, GOP challengers to Democratic incumbents are sitting state attorneys general who back the lawsuit against the health care law led by the state of Texas that prompted the DOJ to say it would not defend key parts of the law.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, among the top GOP targets this cycle, pointed out on Twitter the involvement of state Attorney General Josh Hawley in that litigation.

“No Tyler, he won’t. He is one of the AGs bringing the lawsuit to end the protection of those with pre-existing conditions,” she said in response to a tweet asking if Hawley would be joining in a counter-effort led by Xavier Becerra, the Democratic attorney general of California.

In a statement, Hawley criticized McCaskill for supporting the health care law, as well as the lack of progress on changes to it. But the Missouri attorney general also said he supports the legal requirements.

“Insurance companies should be required to cover folks with preexisting conditions, and also to allow kids to stay on their parents’ insurance up to age 26,” Hawley said. “And insurance companies should be forced to do a lot more — like actually compete for families’ business, instead of getting these sweetheart deals from big government.”

The campaign of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III is highlighting his opponent’s support for the Texas lawsuit in fundraising emails. “Patrick Morrissey wants to take away affordable and accessible health care for tens of thousands of hardworking West Virginians. Morrissey is asking a federal court to strip care protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” a blast sent Monday reads.

The early evidence may be anecdotal, but the issue seems to be resonating even for Democratic incumbents from states that backed President Donald Trump.

Social media posts from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp opposing the Sessions announcement had a higher-than-normal organic reach, according to the North Dakota Democrat’s office.

“Imagine it was your child with cancer, and now the federal government is telling you that health insurance companies can essentially bankrupt your family in exchange for your child getting the lifesaving health care they need to live,” she said in a statement after the announcement. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had already been preparing for a summer-long push on health care by members of the Democratic Conference.

Even with the media focus on the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Schumer started off Tuesday’s weekly stakeout with reporters on health care, following the Democrats’ policy lunch. 

“Democrats have not, and will not, lose sight of the fact that the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have systematically worked to sabotage our health care system, leading to double-digit premium increases in state after state,” the New York Democrat said. “We are not going to get diverted.”

“This November, Americans will go to the polls knowing that President Trump and Republicans in Congress have spent two years dismantling the nation’s health care system,” he added.

The crux of the GOP and DOJ argument is that in the absence of a tax penalty for individuals not purchasing health insurance, related provisions of the 2010 law should not be legally defended under the taxing power of Congress, which was the authority under which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. upheld the law in a landmark 2012 Supreme Court decision. 

Questioned about the turn of events, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed to ill-fated efforts of leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel — Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking Democrat Patty Murray — to shore up the health insurance exchanges. 

“Everybody, everybody that I know in the Senate is in favor of maintaining coverage for pre-existing conditions. There is no difference of opinion about that whatsoever,” the Kentucky Republican said.

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to respond, accusing the majority leader of being misleading.

“Senator McConnell is wrong and the contrast between Republicans and Democrats on health care could not be more clear,” David Bergstein said in a statement. “Republicans … as well as every other GOP Senate candidate, want to slash coverage for pre-existing conditions — their latest plan would even make this coverage unconstitutional.”

— Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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