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Health Care Continuity Act passes Senate

CHARLESTON — A bill trumpeted by the West Virginia attorney general as a solution should the courts strike down the Affordable Care Act passed the state Senate Tuesday morning.

The West Virginia Health Care Continuity Act, Senate Bill 284, passed in a 20-17 party-line vote. The bill now heads to the House of Delegates.

SB 284 would create the West Virginia Patient Protection Program for people with pre-existing medical conditions. It would give the state Commissioner of Insurance the authority to activate the program should the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act be struck down in total or in part.

The bill was introduced on behalf of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who unveiled the proposal in January. The bill mirrors similar efforts in Louisiana and most recently in Arizona.

“I applaud the Senate for supporting protections for those with pre-existing conditions,” Morrisey said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Now is the time for similar action in the House. Passage of the bill will put West Virginia out in front and show the nation how West Virginia unites to ensure that everyone — including those with pre-existing conditions — has the ability to purchase health insurance.”

The goal of the program is to make sure people cannot be denied access to health insurance plans in West Virginia on the basis of a pre-existing condition. The program creates a high-risk pool — a reinsurance program — that would provide payment to health insurance issuers for claims for services to eligible individuals with expected high health care costs.

Supporters of the bill believe the Health Care Continuity Act will help lower premiums for health insurance coverage offered in the individual market and protect West Virginians with pre-existing conditions who could possibly lose their health insurance if the ACA goes away.

“What this bill does is provide protections to West Virginians in the event that the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, is overturned,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. “The bill provides that a health insurance policy may not use a pre-existing (condition) as an exclusion, and may not deny enrollment to any individual on the basis of a pre-existing condition.”

According to 2018 numbers from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44 percent of West Virginians have had private insurance, 26 percent have Medicaid and 19 percent had Medicare. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports more than 800,000 West Virginians — or 52 percent of non-elderly state residents — have pre-existing conditions. The repeal of the ACA could cost the state $1 billion in federal funding for the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Opponents of the bill are concerned with the health insurance premiums for people with pre-existing conditions in the high-risk pool created by the West Virginia Patient Protection Program. They also raised concerns about the costs the state will have to bear to cover West Virginians in the Medicaid program.

“I just can’t abide the politics of this bill,” said Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “(Morrisey) has made it his goal in this state to strip away protections under the pre-existing conditions that we have under the ACA. He has produced us a bill that doesn’t come anywhere close to protecting West Virginians.”

West Virginia, represented by Morrisey, is among 18 states and the U.S. Department of Justice suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act adopted under former President Barack Obama. They allege the act is unconstitutional because of the individual mandate that penalizes people who haven’t purchased health insurance.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in December that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but sent the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas to work out whether the individual mandate could be separated from the ACA or whether the ACA could be divided into parts. It’s expected that the ACA will once again be before the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals depending on the lower court’s decision.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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