Politics & Government

Democrats slam Sen. Thom Tillis over health care. Is that fair?

A day before a federal court hears a case that could end the Affordable Care Act, North Carolina Democrats slammed Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis over an issue that once again will be a major battle in 2020.

Appeals Court judges in New Orleans are scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday in Texas v. U.S. after a lower court ruled the ACA, known as Obamacare, unconstitutional.

The suit was initiated by 20 states with Republican governors or attorneys general. The Trump administration has sided with the states that want to overturn the ACA.

At news conferences in Charlotte and Raleigh on Monday, Democrats attacked Tillis for what they called his silence on the case.

“Sen. Tillis has given his blessing to the lawsuit by staying silent,” said state Rep. Christy Clark, whose Mecklenburg County district was once represented by Tillis.

Democrats focused on the prospective loss of coverage for pre-existing conditions, now mandated by the ACA. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 52 million people have such conditions that were not covered before the ACA became law. That includes an estimated 1.6 million in North Carolina.

But in April Tillis introduced a bill designed to ensure coverage of pre-existing conditions. Called the Protect Act, it guarantees the availability of coverage for pre-existing conditions and prohibits insurers from charging people more for it.

Tillis could not be reached Monday. But when introducing the legislation, he said in a statement: “(N)o hardworking American should ever have to go to bed worried about being denied coverage or treatment if they or their children have a pre-existing condition.“

One analysis of the Tillis bill found that while it would guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions, it would not go as far as the ACA. It would not, for example, ban lifetime caps on benefits.

That would be costly for Stacy Staggs of Charlotte.

Staggs, who appeared at Democrats’ Charlotte news conference Monday, has 5-year-old twins still coping with the effects of very premature births. She said the medical bills for one of her daughters alone have topped $2 million. Those costs are certain to rise in coming years.

“The bang of a gavel would render her uninsurable if the Affordable Care Act goes away,” Staggs said, referring to the Texas case.

According to Kaiser, six in 10 employer-sponsored health plans had a lifetime benefits limit before the 2010 passage of the ACA.

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at Kaiser, called the Tillis bill “a partial fix.”

“It’s intended to say that even if the Affordable Care Act goes away, that Congress will insist that health care not discriminate based on your pre-existing conditions,” she said.

Like other Republicans, Tillis has long opposed the Affordable Care Act and has said it should be repealed. Spokesman Daniel Keylin said Monday that Tillis’ bill “is not intended to be a comprehensive health care reform bill or a replacement for the ACA.”

“It’s designed to lay down the marker for protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions,” he said, “and serve as a temporary stop gap in the event the ACA is overturned by the courts. . . . Even Democrats now acknowledge that Obamacare is not a sustainable long-term solution.”

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.