If Democrats hope the House GOP’s health care overhaul will help them flip Republican seats, then next week’s runoff to represent Tom Price’s former turf in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District will be an early test.
Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are bitterly divided over the plan to roll back the Affordable Care Act, and both put it at the center of their pitch to voters.
The cost of health care was the top issue in last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, with 80 percent of the residents in the suburban Atlanta district saying it was an extremely or very important factor in their decision. Nearly all said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about the cost of health care.
Far less popular in the district that stretches through parts of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties is House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement plan, the American Health Care Act. Only one-quarter of voters said they backed the proposal, a lower level of support than numbers cited in recent national polls.
The GOP legislation would scrap Obamacare’s mandates for coverage and instead offer age-based tax credits to help individuals buy insurance. The bill narrowly passed the House last month, and Senate Republican leaders are currently rewriting it behind closed doors.
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Not a single Democrat voted for the GOP proposal as it wound its way through the House — they joyfully chanted “hey, hey, hey, goodbye” to their Republican colleagues as they cast their votes last month — but they’re still trying to feel out how to capitalize on the measure in conservative-leaning areas.
Many see fissures to exploit within the GOP that could help them recapture the House in 2018 by winning seats such as Georgia’s 6th District. But others remember the rowdy town halls opposing the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010 that ignited the tea party movement and led to the Republican takeover of the House.
In Montana’s May special election, Republican Greg Gianforte tiptoed around the measure, never giving it his unequivocal backing but telling lobbyists in private that he was supportive. His opponent, Rob Quist, spent the end of his campaign railing against the GOP overhaul, including employing ads discussing his health struggles after a “botched” gallbladder surgery. The Republican easily won.
The 6th District, a suburban stretch that’s quickly turning into a swing district, could be a better gauge.
Many Republicans in the 6th have long opposed the Affordable Care Act, though some express concerns about reports that millions could potentially be losing insurance coverage or facing higher premiums under the House GOP plan, which would let states seek waivers from the government and allow insurers to charge more to older Americans or people with pre-existing conditions.
“I find it to be way too invasive,” Charles Neal, a 65-year-old Handel supporter from Cobb County, said of the House health care bill. It “puts people’s privacy in the hands of bureaucrats.”
Marlene Weingart, a 62-year-old Handel supporter, wants Senate Republicans to adopt a form of the House overhaul immediately.
“Health care is not a right or the job of the government,” she said. “Obamacare should be repealed, and they need to simplify the health care system.”
And many Democrats, meanwhile, say their support for Obama’s health care law is a driving force in their vote.
Obamacare “makes sense for a lot of reasons,” said James Vaughn, a 52-year-old from DeKalb County who is backing Ossoff. “I realize it’s not perfect, but repealing it and replacing it with this atrocity the GOP came up with is not right.”
A clear divide
Ossoff and Handel have aggressively seized on the divide rather than dancing around it.
Handel has echoed other Republicans, calling Obamacare a failed boondoggle that needs to be scrapped and replaced immediately. Ossoff said the law needs revamping but that a repeal “makes no sense.”
Their divisions over the health care measure led to one of the testiest exchanges in last week’s WSB debate, an exchange that began with Handel declaring that Obamacare is “collapsing.”
“And I know because my husband and I get our insurance on the exchange. Premiums are skyrocketing, and we’re seeing a complete collapse in choice of plans as well as physicians,” said Handel, who said her premiums have gone from $350 a month to nearly $1,200 a month. “The status quo is unacceptable.”
Ossoff responded with the story of a 7-year-old boy named Matt who had a pre-existing heart condition and receives health care coverage under Obamacare.
“Secretary Handel supports a bill that would gut the protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions — hundreds of thousands of them here in Georgia,” Ossoff said. “Secretary Handel sees fit to impose her own views on Georgians’ health care decisions.”
Turning to Ossoff, Handel responded with indignation: “My sister has a pre-existing condition. She was born without an esophagus. And for you to suggest that I would do anything to negatively affect her is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable.”
The House GOP proposal as written would bar insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions like they could before Obamacare, and it creates high-risk pools meant to keep premiums lower for sick people.
But some of the bill’s opponents worry it would still allow premiums to rise to a degree that insurance could be effectively out of reach to some patients, especially older and poorer Americans.
The Senate’s Republican leaders have indicated they plan to rework the House’s bill from the ground up, with Georgia’s two GOP senators laying out their own priorities that include ensuring the state does not lose out on federal money for not expanding Medicaid under Obamacare.
With a week left in the race, the two candidates traded shots Tuesday over the health care bill’s impact. Citing the AJC poll, Ossoff’s campaign asked why “does career politician Karen Handel support a health care bill that they reject?”
Handel said at a campaign stop at a Roswell diner that she supported shifting more funds to insurance pools aimed at lowering premiums for sick people and providing protections for Georgia and other states that didn’t expand Medicaid programs. But she said “simply doing the same thing over and over is unacceptable.”
“We have to make changes. If we can’t do something in one fell swoop, do it in a couple of bites,” she said. “If Congress fails to act and it collapses in on itself, think of the chaos that will ensue if we haven’t gone about it in a systematic, diligent kind of way.”