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Ernst’s votes on judges endanger Iowans’ health care

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Ben Jealous

Most of us grew up hearing that actions speak louder than words. In an election season, this maxim is more important than ever, especially as we evaluate the fitness of incumbents for reelection. Unfortunately, Sen. Joni Ernst falls far short on an issue of critical importance.

Back in 2018, Ernst issued a statement saying, “It is important that we protect people with preexisting conditions.” Her statement came even as she was defending her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that coverage be available to people with preexisting conditions.

But if Ernst meant to reassure Iowans with her words, her actions tell a very different story. Time after time, she has voted to confirm judicial nominees who are opposed to upholding preexisting-conditions coverage, and are actively taking steps to undermine it.

One federal judge supported by Ernst, D.C. Circuit Court judge Greg Katsas, has already ruled in favor of a Trump administration rule making it easier for insurance companies to sell junk policies that don’t cover preexisting conditions.

Another, Chad Readler, signed a legal brief before his nomination claiming that the ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions are unconstitutional. His colleagues refused to sign it. But Ernst supported Readler for his current seat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, yet another judge Ernst voted for, Fifth Circuit judge Kurt Engelhardt, accepted Readler’s argument. He struck down protections for people with preexisting conditions and ruled the entire ACA could be unconstitutional.

The impact of rulings by these lower-court federal judges supported by Ernst is enormous. The Fifth Circuit ruling, in fact, comes in the broader context of the relentless effort by the Trump administration and a group of Republican attorneys general to have the courts take away our health insurance coverage for preexisting conditions. The suit has been working its way through the federal court system and will land in the Supreme Court for oral arguments in November.

When it does, it will find a friendly audience among conservative justices including Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — both supported by Sen. Ernst. Kavanaugh once was credited by an admiring clerk with having written an opinion that stands as a “road map” for dismantling the ACA. And during his Supreme Court confirmation process, Kavanaugh refused to say whether he would uphold the requirement that insurance companies cover preexisting conditions.

Many of us remember the nightmare scenario that prevailed before the ACA, when insurance companies could — and did — routinely deny coverage for preexisting conditions. To even consider allowing that today is unconscionable.

We are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that is hitting Iowa especially hard. We are only just beginning to learn about the possible “long-haul” effects of the virus, in which patients who seem to have recovered from the acute phase go on to have recurring symptoms. These patients may well have acquired a preexisting condition that could endure for years. It is possible that some percentage of Iowans being diagnosed with COVID today will find themselves in this unfortunate group.

Of course, Ernst has shown us her true colors regarding the pandemic. She recently announced that she is skeptical about surging numbers of COVID patients, suggesting that the numbers are inflated by health care workers who are paid a premium for treating these patients. This is a disgusting allegation that reveals an extraordinarily callous attitude toward a major public health crisis.

And yet it is not surprising, given how insincere Ernst’s “commitment” to protecting people with preexisting conditions has turned out to be. On this issue, her actions rank as a shout while her words are barely more than a whisper.

Ben Jealous is president of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group.

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