Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) on Thursday blasted the Justice Department’s new position on a lawsuit that threatens to throw out the Affordable Care Act.
In a one-paragraph court filing this week, the Justice Department indicated that it agrees with a group of states – including Alabama – arguing that the entire law should be invalidated because of a tax change that eliminated the penalty for not having insurance.
It is a reversal by President Donald Trump’s administration, which previously had argued that parts of the 2010 health law could be saved.
Jones warned that throwing out the law would have catastrophic consequences for Alabama and faulted Trump for taking the hard-line position in court without proposing any legislative solutions.
“He is trying to undo something without anything on the table to talk about,” he told reporters on a conference call. “I really can’t underscore enough how much this lawsuit would hurt the people of Alabama, real people who rely on health care coverage from the law. Each time a new assault on the law is launched, folks get scared all over again wondering how they’ll be able to get the vital care they need.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last year, he explained he was joining the lawsuit, initiated by Texas, “because of the tremendous cost of its individual mandate to individuals and to states.”
He added: “The so-called Affordable Care Act has been anything but affordable for both consumers and for states.”
The states focus on the so-called individual mandate, which required most Americans to have insurance and imposed a penalty on those who did not purchase it. Drafters of the law, commonly known as Obamacare, argued at the time that the mandate was necessary for a major component of the legislation – that insurance companies could not deny coverage or raise rates for people with expensive health problems.
Without the requirement, according to that rationale, people could simply go without insurance until they needed it. That would spell disaster for insurance companies, which depend on the revenue from healthy people to pay the claims of sick people.
But in the 2017 tax reform law, the Republican-led Congress eliminated the penalty for not having insurance beginning this year. The plaintiffs argue that since the mandate was the linchpin to making the other provisions work, the entire law is invalid.
A federal judge in Texas last year agreed with the plaintiffs. The case currently is on appeal to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the law ultimately goes away, it would have far-reaching effects for the entire country. It would eliminate money that the federal government provided to expand Medicaid for low-income Americans. It also would end the online marketplace that the government set up to allow middle-class people without coverage from employers to use tax subsidies to buy private insurance.
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimated in 2017 that repealing the law would leave an additional 357,000 Alabamians without insurance, a jump of 74 percent. The think tank also calculated that repeal would cost 11,459 jobs in the state and reduce federal spending in the Heart of Dixie by $1.3 billion.
People who get health coverage from the government or through their employers would continue to be protected from losing coverage due to pre-existing health conditions because of laws passed before Obamacare. But without the Affordable Care Act, people could be denied coverage in the individual market.
A 2016 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that millions of Americans could be deemed uninsurable were they to try to purchase coverage on the individual market. The organization estimated the number in Alabama at 942,000. That is 33 percent of adults younger than 65, tied with Kentucky for the third-highest share in the country, behind West Virginia and Mississippi.
Political experts generally consider Jones, who is running for re-election next year in a red state, one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democrats in 2020. As he gears up for what promises to be a bruising election fight, he touched on a number of hot button issues on Thursday.
Alabama’s junior senator said he was glad that independent counsel Robert Mueller found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 election. He added that he respects Mueller’s findings but called for his full report to be released.
Jones said climate change is an important issue but added that the proposed “Green New Deal” was “far too broad, went far too far and far too fast.” He was one of only three Democrats and one independent who voted against a resolution supporting the sweeping program to eliminate carbon emissions.
But health care dominated the senator’s attention Thursday as he seized on an issue that polling suggests is popular. A Kaiser survey in January suggested that 64 percent of Americans disapprove of the judge’s decision in the Texas lawsuit when told it would mean people with pre-existing conditions would lose legal protections.
“People’s lives would be placed in jeopardy,” Jones said.