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GOP Candidates Play Defense Over Health Care

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/21/2018
a man holding a microphone: Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher © Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California backed the unsuccessful GOP effort last year to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Now, in a bruising race against Democratic challenger Harley Rouda, Mr. Rohrabacher’s ads promise he will “protect America’s health care system,” stressing in particular his support for patients with such conditions.

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Many Republicans, who swept to recent electoral victories by vowing to topple the ACA, are urgently seeking to reassure voters they want to save these protections. Mr. Rohrabacher says he is “taking on both parties” in an effort to do so; his challenger says the congressman is “falling all over himself to scrub his records on health care.”

Such fights are leading to sometimes bitter races across the country involving the ACA, enacted in 2010 under Democratic President Barack Obama.

About half of all Democratic campaign ads—roughly 345,400—had a health-care message through Sept. 30, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data. About a quarter of those discussed pre-existing conditions, according to Kantar, an advertising tracking service.

Republican candidates are talking about health care far less. GOP ads touched on the subject in about 108,200 spots, Kantar said, with 5,310 of those mentioning pre-existing conditions.

Polls suggest Republicans are at a disadvantage on health issues for the first time in years. “They are more vulnerable,” said Robert Blendon, a political analyst and health policy professor at Harvard University. “What’s happened is that pre-existing conditions has gone from being a technical issue to an emotional one.”

About 130 million non-elderly people in the U.S. suffer from an existing medical condition, and a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 75% of voters consider it “very important” that the ACA’s provision guaranteeing such coverage remains law.

Democrats have seized on a lawsuit by 20 Republican-led states that seeks to invalidate the ACA as evidence of the GOP’s insensitivity. The Trump administration has weighed in on that case as well, asking that pre-existing condition protections, among others, be struck down.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) ran a recent ad in which he stands in a field, raises a rifle and fires at a copy of the lawsuit. He is campaigning against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, one of the GOP officials bringing the case.

Democrats also stress that Republicans pushed to repeal the ACA last year. Republicans say they generally backed amendments or replacement plans to retain coverage for pre-existing conditions.

GOP candidates contend that Democrats are playing on voters’ fears. New premium data show that ACA insurance markets are stabilizing, they say, undercutting Democratic warnings that Republicans are trying to sabotage the health law.

“This is a scare tactic, and Americans who have pre-existing conditions should not worry about this,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) said in an interview. “They’re making it up as they go along.”

The issue is a big concern for voters like Andrew Lee, who handles internal communications at an International Business Machines Corp. office in Bethesda, Md., and has been treated for kidney cancer.

He currently has coverage through his employer, but worries he could be prevented from ever becoming self-employed if insurers are allowed to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. “It’s a huge issue,” said Mr. Lee, 58 years old. “Until I go on Medicare, it limits my ability to retire early or work independently.”

Anna Ellis, 48, a marketing and financial consultant who lives near Nashville, Tenn., said her partner has diabetes and she worries about his ability to get coverage if the protections go away. She has delayed getting a physical because of concerns that something could be found that might endanger her coverage. “I’m concerned about it,” she said.

Some of the campaigns are becoming spirited. In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen is running an ad that says Republican Sen. Dean Heller is “lying” about backing pre-existing-condition protections, a charge his campaign denies.

In California, Mr. Rohrabacher’s ad cited his daughter’s leukemia diagnosis, showing photos of her in the hospital, while the congressman vows to fight for people with pre-existing conditions and says he is “using my heart as well as my head.”

Mr. Rouda, his challenger, responded with a statement saying in part, “Like all members of Congress, Dana and his family have Cadillac health care that covers pre-existing conditions…. We know you’ve worked to rip away health care from millions of Americans.”

Democrats have also sought to make their point on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) forced a vote to block a White House plan expanding “short-term” health plans, which critics say will hurt people with pre-existing conditions.

The plan expands the sale of lower-priced, limited-duration policies that don’t have to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. The vote failed on a 50-50 tie.

“Where are my Republican colleagues, who have claimed to care so much about this issue but have done so little to fight for it?” Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) said on the floor.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) said after the vote that the short-term plans offer more choice and don’t touch ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions. “A vote to overturn this rule is a vote against affordable health insurance, and a vote against personal freedom and choice,” he said.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com

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