House Democrats Move to Shore Up Obamacare Ahead of Election (1)

(Updates with House legislation starting in the 19th paragraph.)

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Democrats, seeking to draw a contrast with President Donald Trump‘s health agenda before the November elections, plan to vote this week on a package of measures to strengthen Obamacare.

House leaders have timed the vote to coincide with an important deadline for a lawsuit, which the Trump administration supports, that challenges the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Groups aligned with Democrats will hold events all week with lawmakers in battleground states highlighting the legislation and condemning the lawsuit.

The goal is to recapture for the November elections some of the energy of the 2018 midterms, when Democrats regained control of the House. The party made health care a centerpiece of its campaign platform, and will attempt to hold on to 29 seats in districts that voted for Trump in 2016. Democrats are also eyeing the Senate, where they need a four-seat gain to take control—three if they win the White House.

“We are the party of health care,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The Republicans have become the party of drinking bleach.”

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.)

Repeating Strategy

Some elections experts question whether Democrats can find success repeating their strategy from 2018, when the elections came shortly after Republicans failed in their unpopular effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act even as they held majorities in both chambers of Congress and controlled the White House.

Right now, Americans’ top concerns are related to Covid-19 and the virus’s damage to the economy, but who they will blame or reward remains to be seen, said Capri Cafaro, an executive in residence at the American University School of Public Affairs and a former Democratic member of the Ohio legislature.

“We’re very much in uncharted territory,” she said.

Other experts say the coronavirus outbreak only strengthens the Democrats’ wider message: When is health care more important than in the middle of a pandemic?

“The pandemic increases the urgency of the health-care issue,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist.

It also provides an easy way to contrast the two parties, he said, given dozens of attempts by Republicans to repeal the ACA and the Trump administration’s continued support of the lawsuit.

One and the Same?

Yet voters won’t necessarily see health care and coronavirus as the same issue because of the pandemic’s broader harm to economy, said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist.

“They’re definitely not one and the same, but obviously related,” Steinhauser said. Democrats, he said “will have a stronger case to make if they tie the two together and talk about millions of Americans will get this virus in the next year or two.”

A poll released June 18 by Quinnipiac University found just 39% approved of how Trump is handling health care and a majority (54%) said they preferred former Vice President Joe Biden to handle the coronavirus. That same poll showed voters trust Trump more to restore the economy.

The House is slated to vote on the bill June 25, the same date briefs are due in a lawsuit that could overturn the health-care law if successful.

“There’s not going to be a more clear opportunity to show how the different parties are approaching health care,” said Michael Feldman, a spokesman for Protect Our Care, a pro-Affordable Care Act organization that works closely with House Democrats. Feldman’s group is holding virtual events with lawmakers in 13 states including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

Lawmakers in those states will look to highlight areas of the Affordable Care Act aiding those affected by the Coid-19 pandemic and the related rise in unemployment, such as the expansion of Medicaid.

Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, the Democratic nominee challenging Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), said the coronavirus hasn’t changed the importance of the Affordable Care Act in her district. Many voters like the steps the bill took, but feel their premiums and drug prices are still too high, she said.

“They want to keep it,” she said. “They just want it to be better.”

ACA Package Released

House leaders Monday unveiled legislation (H.R. 1425) that would expand Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and encourage more states to extend eligibility for their public health insurance programs for the poor by reducing federal funds to those states for certain administrative services. The package would be paid for by legislation (H.R. 3) directing the government to demand lower drug prices for certain medications, another main tenet of the Democrats’ health agenda.

The legislation also would support adding more Americans to Medicaid rolls by giving states the option to raise the maximum income for enrollees. It would expand eligibility for premium tax credits beyond the current limit of 400% of the federal poverty line, extending subsidized private insurance to more Americans.

In May 2019, the House passed a bill (H.R. 987) to beef up the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies and make other changes to the health-care law. Senate Republican leaders largely ignored that legislation.

Almost 4 million uninsured people would have had insurance if the 15 holdout states expanded Medicaid, according to a recent analysis from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The bill gives freshman Democrats — who weren’t around for the 2009 vote on the Affordable Care Act and are facing tough re-elections — a chance to show that they’re making progress on health care, Russell said.

“A lot of these members can say, ‘Listen, I got elected to Congress in 2018 telling you that I was going to put health care first and protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and I’m delivering on that,’” Russell said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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