With New Bill, Senate Republicans Eye Damage Control Over Obamacare Lawsuit

(Bloomberg) -- Ten Senate Republicans have introduced legislation that would reinstate Obamacare rules that prohibit insurers from turning away people with pre-existing conditions if a new lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the health-care law succeeds.

The legislation comes two weeks before oral arguments begin on September 5 in Texas v. United States, a Republican-led lawsuit brought by 20 states, which contends that the 2010 health-care law is unconstitutional after Congress neutered the tax penalty for those who don’t comply with its individual mandate to buy coverage.

In an unusual move, the Trump administration sided with the suing states and declined to defend the federal law in court. That leaves Republicans in a difficult position, just two months before the Nov. 6 congressional election, where health care is a top motivating issue for many voters, and one in which Democrats enjoy an advantage, according to surveys.

An Associated Press-NORC poll released Friday found that Americans disapprove by a margin of 36 percent to 64 percent of how Trump is handling the issue of health care.

The move comes as Democrats hammer Republicans in campaign ads for their unpopular efforts last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, possibly further propelling GOP lawmakers to show support for continuing certain protections. A Reuters poll in June and July found 84 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans support “Medicare for All.” Medicare currently is the U.S. health program for the elderly and disabled.

The "Ensuring Coverage for Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Act" was announced Friday by Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Dean Heller of Nevada, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lindsey Graham or South Carolina, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Heller faces a tough re-election in Nevada this fall.

“Nevadans and Americans throughout the country with pre-existing conditions should be protected – period,” Heller said in a statement. “This legislation will make sure that Nevada’s most vulnerable have access to coverage, and I’m proud to join my colleagues to introduce it.”

Stewart Boss, a spokesman for Heller’s Democratic opponent Jacky Rosen, responded by calling it a "weak" and "panicked" move from the senator, noting that he has supported his party’s proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Larry Levitt, the senior vice president for health reform at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said the legislation includes loopholes that would make preexisting condition coverage less robust than it is under existing law.

"It prohibits individual premiums from varying based on health, but allows them to vary based on age, gender, occupation, and leisure activities. It would allow premium variation based on health in the small business market," Levitt said in an e-mail. "The big loophole is that it would allow pre-existing condition exclusions, which were common in individual market plans before the ACA."

"An insurer would have to give you insurance if you have a pre-existing condition, but it could exclude any services associated with your pre-existing condition," he said. "This would make protections for people with pre-existing conditions a bit of a mirage."

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