SBT: Democrats Joe Donnelly and Mel Hall hope pre-existing condition coverage wins votes

“Do you have a pre-existing condition?”

That was the subject line of a fundraising email that Democrat Mel Hall’s campaign sent out Thursday, offering a link to a site where people can share their stories about having a pre-existing health condition, apparently for later use by the campaign.

In a Republican-leaning state, Indiana Democrats this election are gambling that even if Hoosiers don’t like Obamacare, they at least have come to like the controversial law’s most popular provision: prohibiting insurers from denying coverage or dramatically raising premiums for people with known serious health problems.

The strategy seems to have come straight from the national party’s playbook for the Nov. 6 elections. Democrats are talking about the issue everywhere.

On Monday, Indiana and St. Joseph County Democratic Party officials made it the focus of a press conference at county party headquarters. They featured two speakers: Jennifer Faulkner-Jones, a South Bend divorced single mother who, despite having diabetes and having survived thyroid cancer, can qualify for and afford health insurance for the first time because of the ACA; and Dr. Don Westerhausen, a physician whom Democrats have nominated to challenge Republican Dale Devon for his 5th District Indiana House seat in November.

As The Tribune’s Editorial Board recently interviewed incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, he was asked to identify an issue people say they want him to focus on most as he campaigns in the race against Republican Mike Braun.

“They tell me, ‘Number one, the one thing that can wipe me out is if I get wiped out by a health care issue,’ ” Donnelly replied. “ ‘Please make sure that can’t happen.’ ”

In a 30-second TV ad called “Working,” Donnelly is shown holding equipment and talking to factory workers, as a voice-over says, “Fact is, Joe Donnelly works hard for Hoosiers, joining with President Trump to build a wall and protect our borders, protecting health care for Hoosiers with pre-existing conditions, and putting Indiana ahead of party.”

It’s a strategy that would seem to be supported by public opinion polls. When asked which election issue this year was most likely to motivate them to vote, Hoosiers most often cited health care (15 percent), statistically tied with the economy (14 percent) and immigration (12 percent), according to a recent Ipsos poll.

More than 1.1 million Hoosiers younger than age 65 have pre-existing conditions that had caused insurers to deny them coverage before Obamacare took effect in 2014, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Only five states had a higher percentage of non-elderly adults with pre-existing conditions than Indiana’s 30 percent, the 2015 poll found. The U.S. average was 27 percent.

Nationally, according to another KFF poll in late August, about 75 percent of people said it was “very important” to retain coverage protections for people with pre-existing conditions. About 86 percent of Democrats held that view, along with 75 percent of independents and 58 percent of Republicans.

As a whole, the ACA won a 54-percent public approval rating this month, its highest mark ever, according to yet another KFF poll.

Still, Indiana Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill has joined 19 other states in suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to overturn key parts of the law, including the provision prohibiting insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Democrats have noted in their ads and messaging that Braun supports the lawsuit and the Trump administration has opted not to defend the pre-existing conditions protections.

Neither Braun nor Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski, the incumbent 2nd District representative whom Hall is challenging, were available for interviews Friday, according to their campaigns. Walorski in July 2017 voted for the GOP’s repeal-and-replace bill, the American Health Care Act, which would have prohibited insurers from denying access to coverage for people with pre-existing conditions but would have still let them dramatically increase premiums for such policyholders.

That bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate.

Braun spokesman Zach Riddle said Braun supports requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, but he did not reply to a reporter’s emailed question asking whether insurers should be allowed to charge higher premiums for those people.

Indiana and local Democrats aren’t alone in seizing on pre-existing conditions as an issue. Nationwide, about 50 percent of all political TV ads run by Democratic Senate candidates from Sept. 4-17 focused on health care, followed by the budget (17 percent), prescription drugs (16 percent), campaign finance (13 percent) and veterans (11 percent), according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

By comparison, top issues in Republican Senate ads were taxes (27 percent), “pro-Trump (24 percent),” immigration (23 percent), the budget (22 percent) and “anti-Clinton (20 percent).”

“The 2018 midterms are turning out to be the year of health care,” Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said in a statement. “Although Republicans are no longer touting unified repeal and replace messages like prior cycles, they also aren’t ignoring the issue, and Democrats — in stark contrast to earlier cycles — are really focusing the bulk of their messaging on health care as their signature issue.”

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