Assembly GOP slips pre-existing condition protection into late-night bill

Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, left, said the move might teach Democrats a lesson about pulling bills onto the floor.

Assembly Republicans introduced and passed a bill early Thursday that provides some protections for those with pre-existing conditions should Congress roll back protections under the Affordable Care Act.

The bill caught Democrats by surprise — it was introduced as an amendment to their own bill prohibiting lifetime caps on health insurance coverage, something the ACA, also known as Obamacare, also prohibits. The Democrats used a procedural maneuver to bring the bill to the floor, where it would most likely fail, to force Republicans to debate and vote on a contentious topic.

In a surprise move, Republicans stripped out the Democrats’ language and inserted their own, passing the bill 62-35 along party lines. It still must pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before becoming law.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Senate Republicans were still reviewing the bill Thursday.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said the GOP move served notice that Republicans are willing to engage Democrats on the issues they bring forward.

“If you want to have this debate here and now we’re willing to have it,” Steineke said. “Unfortunately their whole goal last night was political gamesmanship instead of actual policy-making. If they learn a lesson from that, maybe that will make them a better caucus.”

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, noted Democrats forced a vote on a separate bill Wednesday night that would have ensured health insurers cover everyone with pre-existing conditions, similar to Obamacare, but Republicans voted against it. Instead, what they passed gives the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance the ability to alter protections in the bill for those with pre-existing conditions.

“They pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes,” Barca said. “It certainly is not their intention to maintain the kind of simple protections for people that you cannot be discriminated against for any circumstances. Period.”

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans declined to comment on the bill.

The language that Republicans used came from a bill Reps. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and Kevin Petersen, R-Waupaca, had been working on since early May after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act.

An alternate U.S. Senate version of the AHCA was unveiled Thursday, but its future remains uncertain.

Democrats have assailed the House bill for opening up the possibility that Americans with pre-existing conditions who don’t currently have coverage might be denied health insurance or charged exorbitant rates. Those who don’t have coverage currently or lose their coverage and don’t find new coverage within 63 days could be forced to pay a penalty if they want to participate in state health care exchanges set up under Obamacare.

Sanfelippo said the bill that passed the Assembly ensures Wisconsin residents who don’t maintain their health insurance coverage would have an option through a state-run high-risk pool similar to one that existed before Obamacare passed. The Office of the Commissioner of Insurance would be responsible for working out the specifics.

“The last thing we want to do is see anyone without insurance,” Sanfelippo said. “We’re going to find a plan that will stop that loss of coverage or come up with options for people.”

Sanfelippo said he wouldn’t have a problem with the Senate passing the bill as is, or putting it through a committee public hearing and review process.

“I think it’s out there now,” Sanfelippo said. “It will have a lot of time for people to be able to look at it and give us some feedback on the thing. If there are changes that need to be made, we’re always willing to look at that.”

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