‘Why you lying, boy?’: Battle to repeal Obamacare rages on inside Fort Worth courtroom

Alvarado man interrupts attorney on courthouse steps over Paxton’s proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act is scheduled for a morning hearing before U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor in Fort Worth, TX.
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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act is scheduled for a morning hearing before U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor in Fort Worth, TX.

Michael Lummus sat in his wheelchair outside the federal court building Wednesday morning, yelling at an attorney who planned to ask a judge inside to put an end to Obamacare.

As the attorney, Robert Henneke, explained to reporters how the country’s health care system is providing “worse and worse health care,” Lummus weighed in.

“Why you lying, boy?” the 49-year-old unemployed Alvarado man bellowed. “That Obamacare saved my life.”

This was the prelude to a nearly four-hour court hearing Wednesday, where attorneys representing 20 states challenged the Affordable Care Act.

They asked U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to support their request for a preliminary injunction, which would put the law on hold as a lawsuit trying to repeal it moves through the court system. Supporters asked him to reject the preliminary injunction and preserve protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s staff led the charge to repeal the plan, saying President Donald Trump’s tax plan last year made the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional because it did away with the tax penalty levied on those who didn’t have insurance.

“The Supreme Court held Obamacare was only tethered to the Constitution by a very thin thread — the fact that the individual penalty raised some revenue,” Paxton, who didn’t attend the hearing, said in a written statement. “Congress severed that thin thread with the tax act of 2017, and all of Obamacare must fall.”

Those defending the plan say it is constitutional and it protects as many as 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure or diabetes, state and federal estimates show.

Wednesday’s court hearing was the latest development in the ongoing effort to end Obamacare, which went into effect in 2010.

O’Connor told the crowd of about 50 people gathered in his courtroom that he would take their arguments under advisement.

“I will think about what you all said and get out (a decision) as soon as I can,” he said.

Outside, protesters rallied against the lawsuit.

Wednesday’s hearing

Paxton’s office isn’t alone in wanting to end ACA.

Twenty states signed on to the lawsuit: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Attorneys representing those states said the health care law is unconstitutional and people across the country “are likely to suffer numerous irreparable harms” if a court doesn’t end the program. They said states, not the federal government, should have the power to decide whether insurance companies must provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Henneke talked about double-digit increases in premiums and how some people have lost their primary health care providers.

“On some of the most important issues, the Department of Justice under both President Trump and President Obama agreed with our position,” Paxton said in a statement. “Texans and other Americans should be free again to make their own health care choices, including which doctor they want to see.”

At the same time, Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brett Shumate said his department doesn’t support an immediate injunction to stop the law because that could create “a potential for chaos.”

Instead, he suggested the judge deny the preliminary injunction and delay any decision — to avoid mass confusion — until after the “open enrollment” period for insurance has for the most part wrapped up across the country.

The defense of the health care plan came from attorneys representing more than a dozen states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, and Washington, D.C.

They argued that Congress removed one facet of the health care plan and left the rest alone, which should show legislative intent. They noted that the penalty for not having insurance goes away next year, which removes any harm to Americans.

If the protections are gone that ensure people can get affordable health care while having pre-existing medical conditions, then some people might not be able to afford health insurance at all.

“The plaintiffs aren’t seeking to maintain the status quo,” said Neli Palma, a deputy attorney general in California. “They are seeking to blow it up.”

Before the hearing

One of the most dramatic moments in the case Wednesday came when Lummus confronted Henneke outside the courthouse before the hearing began.

Henneke was telling reporters that the law is inconsistent and unconstitutional. He talked about the health-care system and how it is becoming more expensive even as it is “crumbling.”

Lummus started yelling that Henneke was lying.

“I don’t know how in the world you can sleep at night,” Lummus told him, adding that ending ACA will kill countless people.

Lummus talked about having a full-time job before coming down with bone disease. He’s looking for a job with good health insurance. But he said he wouldn’t have survived without the Affordable Care Act.

“Thank God Obamacare was here,” he said.

Beyond the arguments

The Senate last year rejected a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

But now a group of Senate Republicans is trying to hammer out a plan to save coverage for pre-existing conditions, in case this lawsuit is successful.

The gist of the plan is to ensure access to health care for anyone with pre-existing conditions by preventing discrimination based on a person’s health status.

Supporters say they are glad lawmakers see the need to protect pre-existing conditions.

“Ensuring cancer patients, survivors and all those at risk for the disease are able to obtain affordable, meaningful health coverage is essential to reducing death and suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “While well-intended, the current proposal would do little to prevent patients from facing ... difficult circumstances in the future if current law is negated by the courts.

“Cancer patients and survivors need to be able to purchase health plans that cover the entirety of their health care needs without exclusions or exorbitant premiums. This bill is an inadequate replacement for the patient protections under threat in this court case.”

Critics say the GOP plan won’t help because insurance companies can still carve out loopholes.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
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