Andy Kim decided to run against House Republican Tom MacArthur last year as he watched TV coverage of GOP efforts to change Obamacare while waiting in a hospital room for news on his unborn son.
Kim was sparked by MacArthur’s amendment that would have let insurers charge more for patients with pre-existing conditions and his central role in helping the Affordable Care Act changes pass the House. An ultrasound had just shown that Kim’s son was dramatically underweight, and he wondered “if my baby boy is going to have a problem for the rest of his life.”
“What I promised myself and my family that day was I was going to do everything I humanly can to hold Tom MacArthur for what he just did,” said Kim, a Democrat who’s challenging the New Jersey Republican in the November election.
(Related: Life Near the ACA Cut-Off Cliff)
The attempt to change the Affordable Care Act ultimately failed after getting stalled in the Senate. But the effort to scuttle the 2010 law inspired dozens of Democrats like Kim who have put the Affordable Care Act health insurance provisions at the center of their campaigns and are using personal experiences to illustrate how a repeal would have hurt them.
The decision by Democrats to take the offensive on health care marks a switch in tactics from 2010, when the party lost 64 seats and the House majority after passing the Affordable Care Act. To climb back they need to gain a net 23 seats to win back House control and the power to block key elements of President Donald Trump’s agenda and any further attempts to roll back the law.
House Democrats named Kim, a former Obama administration national security aide, to their “Red to Blue” program for top tier candidates in Republican-held districts. His campaign reported raising $1.1 million through March 31. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the race between MacArthur and Kim on Friday from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” slightly less in MacArthur’s favor.
The failed GOP repeal attempt gave Democrats a chance to promote popular aspects of the law — including its ban on jacking up rates for patients with pre-existing medical conditions. After years of attacks by Republicans, Obamacare gained majority public approval in a Gallup poll for the first time in April 2017. A Gallup poll last month found that the cost and availability of health care is Americans’ top issue for the fifth year in a row.
MacArthur’s amendment would have let states seek waivers to let insurers charge higher premiums for those with existing conditions and drop some benefits designated as “essential” under the Affordable Care Act health insurance provisions, including maternity care.
Chris Russell, a campaign strategist for MacArthur, said his amendment “sought to make coverage of pre-existing conditions sacrosanct for all Americans and ensure essential health benefits remained the federal standard.” It wouldn’t allow denial of coverage for a pre-existing condition, Russell said in a statement.
But critics said it would have made premiums too expensive for people with health problems.
“I know exactly what happens when people lose their access to health care or health insurance,” said Kim Schrier, a pediatrician and one of five Democrats running to replace Republican Dave Reichert, who is retiring from his House district in central Washington state.
“I have my own pre-existing condition — type 1 diabetes,” Schrier said. “If I didn’t have insurance through my company, I would be in that same situation.”
While repeated GOP efforts to make sweeping changes to the Affordable Care Act have failed, Congress did vote in December to end a key component starting in 2019 — the requirement that almost all Americans obtain insurance or pay a penalty.
Premiums for 2019 are expected to be announced in October, just before voters head to the polls. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasts a 10% increase for people who buy insurance on the individual market.
The individual market makes up just 7% of how Americans got their health care in 2016, compared to 49% of Americans with employer-sponsored coverage and 35% with Medicare or Medicaid. But the Affordable Care Act still drives the politics of health care.