With fewer than three weeks left in the presidential campaign, health care and the uncertain future of a federal law that mandates coverage for preexisting conditions and other protections is once again being thrust into the forefront of the nation’s political debate.
For the past two days, Democrats have used the ongoing hearings for President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to highlight the precarious outlook for the federal Affordable Care Act.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the latest challenge led by a group of Republican attorneys general to the law commonly known as “Obamacare” just a week after the November 3 election.
The Senate’s GOP leaders have vowed to expedite Barrett’s confirmation, so she could be seated by that time. She has repeatedly avoided stating any direct opinion on the federal law during hearings this week. But Democrats, highlighting the cases and concerns of individual constituents with large posters of voters’ faces, are trying to send a signal in election crunch time: Health care could be in danger if Trump has his way.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is a top ally of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, made a direct appeal to voters during Barrett’s hearing.
“You know at home exactly what the president is up to—that’s why you’re voting, that’s why you are voting in droves,” she said to the camera. “Why are you voting? Well you that know your rights, your health, your health care is on the line. You know that they are trying to push through a justice who has been critical of upholding the Affordable Care Act, and they are doing it in the middle of a pandemic.”
Trump last month unveiled his America First Healthcare Plan, a series of executive orders that don’t carry the weight of law but seek to lower costs and cover preexisting conditions if the law is struck down. Experts have questioned the effectiveness of these orders.
The president defended them on the campaign trail.
“In short, we are delivering better care with more choice, at much lower cost, and working to ensure Americans have access to the care they need,” Trump said during his event in North Carolina, a state he’s been courting as he seeks re-election.
After narrowly failing to repeal Obamacare when the GOP controlled both the House and Senate early in Trump’s tenure, the GOP-controlled Senate pivoted to focus nearly all its energy in recent months toward approving Trump’s judicial appointees.
The non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation has been regularly tracking which issues voters identify as the most important in the presidential race. The poll’s most recent findings released last month showed one-third of voters surveyed identified the economy as their top priority, followed by the coronavirus outbreak at 20%. As the top issue for 10% of voters surveyed, health care in general has dropped 16 points since February, according to Kaiser’s analysis. Health care ranked fifth among deciding factors, behind policing (16%) and race relations (14%).
Democrats have often dominated public opinion on health care issues, and Kaiser’s polling found voters who identified with the Democratic Party are more likely to say that health care is among their top priorities.
In addition to mandating coverage for preexisting conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, the ACA has allowed 39 states to tap into federal assistance to expand Medicaid health coverage for low income people.
Under Medicaid expansion, which 12 GOP-led states have rejected, people who make up to 138% of the federal poverty level, which is about $17,600 for a single person or $36,100 for a family of four, can qualify for taxpayer-funded health care.
David Cannon, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin, told Newsweek it makes sense for Democrats to aim to highlight health care in the high-profile confirmation hearings.
“I think clearly the pandemic is probably the president’s biggest vulnerability,” he said. “Given that health care is so closely tied to that is on people’s mind right now.”
Canon said that the issue could embolden Democrats who may not have been as excited about Biden’s candidacy.
“This does expose a real vulnerability, I think, in (Trump’s) reelection effort,” Canon said. “They don’t have a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act if it’s struck down.”
Even more significantly, he said, it could help down-ballot Democrats running in the House and Senate.
“This potential to strike down, I think, really does help Democrats,” he said.
Michael Binder, political science professor and director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida, said the effort may ultimately have little impact on changing voters minds.
“There are so few undecided voters left in the country,” he told Newsweek. “The polls really haven’t moved much — everyone knows who President Trump is.”
He noted that health care tends to be an issue embraced by Democrats and lifted by Democrats.
“Will it maybe motivate a couple of people to show up? Maybe,” Binder said. “I think most of the minds have been made up, and ballots are being cast.”
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