WASHINGTON, D.C. — Health experts warned House lawmakers this week that repealing the Affordable Care Act amid the coronavirus pandemic would have devastating consequences for millions of Americans.
Dr. Benjamin Sommers, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a professor of health care economics for Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained the ACA produced the largest drop in the uninsured rate since the creation of Medicaid and Medicare more than 50 years ago.
“Twenty million people gained health insurance and nearly a decade of research has shown that the law has produced significant benefits,” he told the Subcommittee on Health on Sept. 23. “…Research is now showing that the ACA has literally been a lifesaver.”
But Sommers said the Trump administration has taken many steps to undermine the ACA, including shortening enrollment periods, cutting funding for advertising and outreach efforts and permitting states to make it more difficult for residents to sign-up.
The law may be struck down later this year as the Supreme Court is slated to begin hearing arguments on Nov. 10 about whether the ACA is unconstitutional.
Health insurance is always essential, Sommers said, but it is especially critical during a deadly pandemic. He told the lawmakers to ask themselves one question: Did they want it to be easy or hard for Americans to get coverage and stay enrolled?
“During a pandemic, as a primary care doctor and as a public health professor, to me the answer is incredibly clear,” he said. “We have to be doing everything we can to get people access to health insurance and health care.”
Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo agreed the ACA was a lifeline for many who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. The Palo Alto Democrat said the American Medical Association wrote in an amicus brief to the court that striking down the law while the health system was struggling to respond to a pandemic would be a “self-inflicted wound” that could take decades to heal.
“I ask my Republican colleagues to avoid these self-inflicted wounds,” she said. “End your decade-long fight to repeal or weaken the Affordable Care Act.”
Eshoo then asked the other witnesses if they agreed with statements in the written testimonies from Sommers and American Action Forum President Dr. Douglas Holtz-Eakin that described the ACA as a crucial safety net for Americans.
Idaho Department of Insurance Director Dean Cameron, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Vice President for Health Policy Aviva Aron-Dine and Peter Lee, the executive director for Covered California, all replied “yes.”
Lee said Covered California — a state-based health insurance marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act— created a special enrollment period for state residents after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to the virus. He said nearly 290,000 Californians enrolled.
The executive director acknowledged the ACA could be improved and strengthened. But he said striking down the law altogether would be disastrous.
“It is clear during a pandemic that the public benefits from having potentially infectious individuals get tested and treated,” Lee said. “…The ACA is the right law to build upon and we risk catastrophe if we turn our backs and abandon the millions of people it protects.”
But Greg Walden, R-Oregon, argued the ACA had not lived up to expectations.
“I remember all the stories when the ACA took over about people who were promised they could keep their health plan or their doctor and neither of those things panned out well,” he said.
Walden added that nations around the world were struggling to contain the pandemic. He praised the Trump administration for working to break down bureaucratic barriers to help speed along a vaccine or other treatments for the virus.
President Donald Trump has vowed to replace the ACA with “a much better plan” that he said would still protect pre-existing conditions.
The John Hopkins Research Center reported earlier this week that more than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus.
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