Texas Politics

Special session needed if Obamacare is struck down in the courts, Texas Democrats say

Democratic lawmakers stressed the need for the Affordable Care Act to remain intact at a press conference Friday, calling for the possibility of a special session, amid Texas’ role leading a lawsuit that has the potential to shake up the nation’s healthcare system.

“If we don’t get relief from the courts and we do find ourselves in a crisis situation, that does merit an emergency session,” said Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, at the Texas AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Austin.

Earlier this month, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in New Orleans for the case, Texas v. United States, which is set to determine whether the Affordable Care Act must be struck in its entirety. Texas is leading a coalition of Republican-leaning states that first filed the lawsuit in February 2018.

In December, a federal judge in Fort Worth sided with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and ruled that the ACA was unconstitutional. Attorneys fighting against the federal law argued that after Congress reduced the individual mandate penalty to zero in 2017 the law was no longer legal in its entirety.

According to the Associated Press, it’s unclear when the panel of judges will rule on the case, which is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is collusion, pure and simple,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett said. “Collusion between an indicted Republican attorney general and the Trump administration to destroy the protections that so many Texans, so many Americans, rely upon.”

Ending the act, often referred to as Obamacare, would eliminate protections for those with pre-existing conditions, such as pregnancy, arthritis and diabetes. A little over 1 million Texans signed up for insurance through the ACA last year.

“Trump and Republicans are trying to do in the courts what they failed to do in Congress: repeal our entire healthcare law,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said during the press conference.

Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, with about 4.7 million people who remain uninsured, according to the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. Lawmakers shared their own experiences when health care saved them from close calls.

U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar credited protections in the ACA with helping her family get by when her husband was diagnosed with leukemia. And state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who is a cancer survivor, said he should have been dead already.

“But the truth of the matter is, I’m not,” Watson said. “I had the opportunity to survive and thrive because of early, effective and frequent healthcare. And I strongly believe that everyone deserves that same opportunity.”

Gov. Greg Abbott ensured Texans in December that if the ACA were to be struck down in its entirety, that the state would be “ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Paxton said Wednesday in an interview on the Rick Roberts Show, that he hopes the law is struck down so “states get to step in and provide a better remedy for healthcare than what the federal government has.”

But it remains to be seen what state leaders’ plans are.

“We have to watch what they do. Not what they say,” Escobar said of Republicans’ pledges.

While the state’s Republican leaders have been crusading against the law, polls show a majority of people are in favor of the act’s provisions.

A majority of people surveyed by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Health Foundation in April 2019 said they feel it’s “very important” that the law’s protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions remain in place, even if it means increased insurance costs for others. Roughly 57% of those surveyed said they or someone in their household lives with a pre-existing condition.

And in a November 2018 poll, voters — even across party lines — viewed many of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions favorably, such as allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until they turn 26 years old.

A law, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Noth Richland Hills, went into effect last month that allows for the creation of a temporary high-risk health insurance pool.

“That is not a real solution,” Watson said, pointing to the small number of Texans that would be covered by the plan.

Texas has one of the highest exchange enrollments nationwide, with 1,087,240 people enrolling in private plans through the Texas exchange during the open enrollment period for 2019 coverage, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tarrant County saw 68,734 people enroll in an exchange program during the 2019 open enrollment period, making it the the 11th-highest out of the 39 states that use the Healthcare Exchange platform.

Abbott has the sole discretion to call lawmakers into a special session, and he has said previously there won’t be one.

Democrats warned that if Republicans don’t act in the interest of constituents’ healthcare, voters will make the call for them.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Hinojosa said to Republicans. “If this thing goes south on us, it’s going to go south on them as well. And I promise you, if they saw some punishment in the 2018 election, they’re going to be decimated in 2020.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.