Arizona House has heated debate over Obamacare protections

The Arizona House on Wednesday advanced a measure that would require health insurance companies to issue policies to people with pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is overturned by a court.

But minority Democrats decried the measure, saying it was just providing cover to Republican efforts to eliminate the law and said the protections will fall far short of what people now have.

The debate became heated, with both sides using procedural moves as they objected to the others’ tactics. The bill still requires a formal vote before heading to the governor’s desk.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is part of a coalition of top Republican state prosecutors who are seeking to have the health care law championed by former President Barack Obama overturned. A federal judge in Texas has declared the law unconstitutional. Democratic states and the U.S. House are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the law.

In the Arizona Legislature, Republicans are moving to ensure that the law’s popular requirement that people’s pre-existing health conditions can’t be the basis for denying coverage remains in force. The Senate passed the proposal unanimously in March, before the Legislature recessed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate came back early this month but voted to end the session.

MORE: Arizona House votes not to join Senate in adjourning

The House balked, and it restarted action on a host of stalled bills Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the pre-existing conditions proposal brought acrimonious debate. Republicans shut down efforts by Democrats to add other protections now in the law, including requirements that policies can’t charge people with pre-existing conditions higher rates and must cover essential medical services such as prescription drugs, pregnancy and mental health care.

“It doesn’t do anything at all to protect people with pre-existing conditions, because it doesn’t address the fact that it will be totally unaffordable. Insurance plans that would be issued don’t have to cover the things that you need,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Scottsdale. “So it’s giving people a totally false sense of security — but’s it is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. That’s about all it is.”

Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger rejected Democrats’ arguments, saying 80 percent of Americans like the law’s provisions on pre-existing conditions and that state law will protect consumers from being charge more if they have pre-existing conditions.

“This is a bill dealing with the most popular thing people like about the ACA,” Weninger said. “You’re right, there is smoke and mirrors. But it’s on the other side.”

The House is working despite the Senate’s decision to adjourn, in part an effort to get senators to return and pass House measures that have stalled in the upper chamber.

Much of Wednesday’s acrimony comes from normal end-of-session angst and inter-party fighting, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing added fervor.

“It’s awful. We shouldn’t be here,” Democratic minority leader Charlene Fernandez said. “We should be (adjourned), and we should be working on COVID-19 packages.”

She defended her members’ efforts to fight for changes to the Obamacare replacement law, saying that while Democrats are in the minority they should have a say too.

“Where is it that 29 is less than 31, other than on a page?” Fernandez said. “We represent people in Arizona, just like they do. This is what we have to do. ”

Republican T.J. Shope, who as speaker pro-tem was forced to rule against Democrats several times Wednesday, said he did what he had to do under the rules. But he said no matter what happens as the Legislature wraps up its work to an expected conclusion of the session this week, there is more work to come on the coronavirus front.

“Look, I don’t think there’s any secret that in a few weeks, maybe longer, we’ll be back here dealing with a lot of the things that both of us have talked about, COVID-related, or economic stimulus, employee issues, whatever,” Shope said. “I know that that’s coming.”