- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Trump administration official who oversees Obamacare pledged Tuesday to shield sick Americans if a pending lawsuit manages to ax popular protections in the 2010 law, as red-state Democrats prodded the administration to explain whether it had a Plan B for nervous constituents back home.

“If the law changes in some way, I would work with Congress to make sure we had protections in place for people with pre-existing conditions,” Seema Verma, administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Senate Democrats pleaded for assurances because, they say, the administration and Republican-led Congress are not ready to confront the potential fallout from the legal challenge, which argues that Obamacare will become unconstitutional when its penalty for shirking insurance is cut to zero next year.

The Republican-controlled Congress failed to rally around an Obamacare replacement last year, so it is unclear what it might do if the lawsuit — filed by 20 Republican-led states — succeeds, canceling provisions that require insurers to cover sicker consumers and charge them the same as healthy people.

“I certainly am willing to stay here weekends, 24/7, to make sure those protections stay in place,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat seeking re-election. She noted that her Republican opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, signed on to the lawsuit. “There doesn’t seem to be any urgency about the fact this lawsuit is moving its way through the courts and could blow up all of the protections.”

Ms. Verma said she would spring into action, if needed.

“I think that we need to have protections in place for those individuals,” she testified.

The lawsuit in question says the Supreme Court relied on that taxing authority to uphold the law as constitutional. If there is no longer a tax, the rest of the law falls too. A federal judge in Texas has scheduled oral arguments in the case for Sept. 5.

Ms. Verma declined to say whether she had advised the Justice Department on how to approach the lawsuit, noting that she can’t speak about pending litigation.

Yet Democrats treated her as a proxy for the full administration, which decided in June not to defend the law in court.

“There is nothing consistent about that position,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat. Facing a Republican challenge from Rep. Kevin Cramer, she told Ms. Verma, “Let’s not pretend that there is any commitment here from the Department of Justice to preserve pre-existing conditions here. It’s not your decision, but I want that on the record.”

Obamacare supporters say Congress explicitly moved to zero out the mandate penalty while leaving consumer protections alone, so the lawsuit lacks merit.

Still Ms. McCaskill and other red-state Democrats see the lawsuit as a chance to play offense amid tough races in Trump country. Besides Mr. Hawley, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit as he challenges Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Mr. Trump rallied in support of Mr. Morrisey’s bid Tuesday while Mr. Manchin held his own roundtable with people with pre-existing conditions.

“I’m hearing from people all across West Virginia that they are scared that this lawsuit, being waged by West Virginia’s attorney general, to repeal their health care will go through and they will be dropped from their health insurance or be unable to afford the payments,” Mr. Manchin said.

Republican candidates like Mr. Hawley and Mr. Morrisey say one of the reasons they are running is to expand the Senate Republican majority so they can get an Obamacare replacement over the finish line while protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

Still, some Capitol Hill Republicans have concerns about the lawsuit. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has called its arguments “far-fetched,” while Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine urged the Justice Department to reconsider its position.

Other Republicans have brushed off the political threat, however, saying the House already passed an Obamacare replacement and that senators are fine-tuning a block-grant bill known as Graham-Cassidy that would allow sicker Americans to find insurance.

“It’s pretty much ready to go. It definitely preserves guaranteed issue,” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said Tuesday.

However, the last version of that bill had to be pulled last year because of blanket opposition from Democrats and opposition from some Republicans, who worried about coverage losses and tweaks to consumer protections.

Graham-Cassidy empowered states to set their own benefits standards instead of getting permission from the federal government to tweak what insurers must cover, such as mental health and maternity care.

States could also apply to let insurers charge sicker people more than healthy ones under the bill, yet had to provide a description of “how the state shall maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions.”


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