Editorial: Thank Pam Bondi if Floridians lose health care benefits

JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times President Donald Trump greets Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after arriving in Tampa.
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times President Donald Trump greets Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after arriving in Tampa.
Published Dec. 17, 2018

Here's a lovely Christmas gift from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. The federal lawsuit she joined on behalf of the state to challenge the Affordable Care Act resonated with a friendly conservative judge in Texas, who late Friday struck down the entire law. The ruling will be appealed, but it unnecessarily leaves millions of Floridians anxious and uncertain about whether they will get to keep their benefits and coverage in the long term.

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor found the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional even though the challenge by Republican governors and state attorneys general from Florida and 19 other states focused on a narrow issue. The judge concluded the entire law must be scrapped because he found unconstitutional the requirement that most Americans must have health coverage or pay a tax penalty. The tax penalty was essentially eliminated by Congress last year, so the judge illogically concluded that makes the mandate illegal and the entire law fatally flawed. Both liberal and conservative legal experts question the judge's reasoning, and the ruling is certain to be appealed.

That is little comfort to Floridians who are among 23 million Americans who get health coverage through the federal or state marketplaces, or through Medicaid expansion in 36 states. It's ironic the court ruling came the day before the deadline to sign up on the federal marketplace for 2019 coverage. Heading into the final days, Florida led the nation in sign-ups with nearly 1 million residents obtaining coverage. The total would have been higher if the Trump administration had not tried to sabotage the law by slashing spending for advertising and for hiring navigators to help consumers find the best deals.

Don't forget that millions of Floridians benefit from other portions of the Affordable Care Act. Parents can keep their children on the family health insurance plan until the kids are 26 years old. There are protections for several million Floridians with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, who cannot be denied coverage. There are provisions that require free preventative care such as mammograms and vaccinations. All of those benefits would be wiped out if the Affordable Care Act disappeared, which is what Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott have advocated for years.

Predictably, President Donald Trump called the court ruling "a big, big victory.'' Sen. Marco Rubio also was happy, releasing a statement that said the decision is a "stark reminder of the millions of Americans who are suffering under the law. Americans should have the ability to buy a health plan that meets their needs, rather than what Washington tells them.'' No word from Scott, who distanced himself from the lawsuit during his successful campaign for U.S. Senate and claimed to support keeping protections for pre-existing conditions. And not a peep from Bondi, who did not represent the best interests of Floridians in joining this partisan lawsuit.

If the ruling ultimately stands, Republicans would face a political backlash and be forced to come up with an alternative. Polls show Americans narrowly support the Affordable Care Act, and support is far higher for the law's most popular provisions. The law is not perfect, and health coverage and prescription drugs are not as affordable as they should be in many areas. But it has been upheld twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it has brought coverage and added benefits for Floridians and for millions of other Americans.

Now the future of those benefits, from coverage on the federal marketplace to protections for people with pre-existing conditions, has been put at risk by a partisan lawsuit from Republicans who have failed for years to improve the Affordable Care Act or craft a viable alternative. Those plaintiffs include the most partisan Florida attorney general in memory, who fortunately has just three weeks left in office before she heads to Fox News or parts unknown. Merry Christmas, from Pam Bondi.