Senate Democrats blast Azar over ACA lawsuit

Senate Democrats blast Azar over ACA lawsuit

By:  Rachel Cohrs
Modern Healthcare


Senate Democrats grilled HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday over the Trump administration's lawsuit that could strike down the Affordable Care Act and its reluctance to provide details about a plan to protect consumers if the lawsuit succeeds.

While Democrats on the campaign trail have primarily focused on the differences between their own healthcare plans, Democrats in Congress have homed in on President Donald Trump's repeated claims that he supports protecting patients with pre-existing conditions despite pursuing a lawsuit that could eliminate existing protections.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) blasted Azar during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the president's budget for declining to detail a plan to ensure patients with pre-existing conditions are able to get insurance coverage if the lawsuit spearheaded by Republican state attorneys general and the administration is successful.

"We've been hearing about killing Obamacare since it was created. There have been years to have with your own version of what it is. Why would you wait until there is a disaster to then deal with the millions of Americans who would not have health insurance?" Menendez said.

Azar downplayed the urgency of releasing a specific plan to stabilize the healthcare system if the Affordable Care Act is struck down in its entirety. An appeals court remanded the case to a district court judge to determine whether other provisions of the Affordable Care Act can be severed from the law's individual mandate.

"The litigation still has a very long way to proceed," Azar said.

Supreme Court justices are scheduled to discuss if they will take up the case on Feb. 21. In response to criticism from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) about his reticence to outline specific plans, Azar minimized the chance that the Supreme Court would make a final decision on the lawsuit anytime soon and claimed Trump would veto any replacement law that lacked protections for pre-existing conditions.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), who was attorney general of Nevada for eight years, challenged Azar's assertion that the administration could both support protections for pre-existing conditions and move to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

"When you go into litigation, you are setting forth your values and your principles as part of that litigation," Cortez Masto said. "You cannot sit here and tell me today that the administration position is that they support the Affordable Care Act and they want to keep that coverage of pre-existing conditions."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) defended Azar on the potentially long timeline for a Supreme Court decision and pivoted to accusing Democrats supporting Medicare for All of trying to eliminate private insurance.

"People want improvement in healthcare, but they like their settled expectations there. That's why the president's philosophy is to protect what works, and make it better. Don't take away what works for people," Azar said.

If the Affordable Care Act were to be struck down, people who receive coverage under state Medicaid expansions and through the public insurance exchanges could be left uninsured, while people kicked off of private insurance plans under Medicare for All would theoretically be insured under a single-payer healthcare system.