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Where Sullivan and Gross stand on health care as Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court

Some polling suggests health care could be the critical issue for voters as Alaskans head to the polls
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Dr. Al Gross have starkly different views on health care.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Dr. Al Gross have starkly different views on health care.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 26, 2020 at 8:35 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice on the Supreme Court on Monday, creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the court. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan both voted to confirm Barrett.

Democrats are worried Barrett’s confirmation to the court means the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare, could be tossed out.

On Nov. 10, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case that calls for the entire Affordable Care Act to be declared invalid. The legislation has allowed for more than 60,000 Alaskans to be covered under the state’s Medicaid expansion program.

In 2020, 17,696 Alaskans enrolled through the individual marketplace for health insurance. The open enrollment period for 2021 begins on Nov. 1 and runs through Dec. 15.

Some Senate Republicans have argued that the Supreme Court may only strike down one narrow provision in the bill which penalizes people for not buying health insurance. In December 2017, Congress zeroed out that penalty but the provision still exists in law.

Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general, said during the Debate for the State on Friday that he thought it was “quite unlikely” that the Supreme Court would strike down the entire Affordable Care Act.

“It’s likely to be a severable provision,” Sullivan said about the individual mandate. “And therefore, the rest of the ACA, including coverage for preexisting conditions, would stay intact.”

Murkowski told the Hill on Monday that she also believes the Supreme Court will not throw out the entire Affordable Care Act.

Barrett seemed to suggest the ACA could stay intact during her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, but the New York Times spoke to several legal scholars who were hesitant to draw broad conclusions from her statements.

Protect Our Care, a liberal advocacy group fighting against the repeal of the ACA, recently conducted a poll in Alaska. It found that health care is a critical issue for Alaskan voters in the 2020 election.

Dr. Al Gross, an independent running as the Democratic nominee against Sullivan, has made health care a centerpiece of his campaign. He is a retired orthopedic surgeon who studied public health in 2013 at UCLA.

The two candidates sparred during Friday’s debate on how much Gross had earned as a doctor and whether Sullivan had a viable health care plan.

Gross has campaigned against Sullivan for his efforts to repeal the ACA and for voting to confirm Barrett, saying thousands of Alaskans could soon lose their health care.

Gross is advocating for a public option in the insurance marketplace.

In 2017, he penned an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News that called for a single-payer system for Alaska. The system Gross advocated for sounds similar to “Medicare for all.”

Gross also posted a tweet in 2018 that appeared to advocate for Medicare for all in reaction to the same case that will soon be before the Supreme Court.

Gross, who plans to caucus with Democrats if elected, has repeatedly said during the campaign that he is committed to implementing a public option but that he emphatically opposes a single-payer system.

“I have never once supported Medicare for all with the elimination of the private health care system. What I’ve done is I’ve studied and written about the drivers of health care costs, and when I get to the Senate, I’m going to be the doctor that gets the public option across the finish line,” he said.

Sullivan opposes Medicare for all and has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act on several occasions since being elected in 2014.

In his maiden speech to the Senate, Sullivan spoke about ACA’s impacts on Alaska. “A little bit of hope dies every time a doctor’s office is shuttered or someone loses health insurance because of the complexities and costs of ObamaCare,” he said in 2015.

Health care premiums rose by double digits in Alaska between 2015 and 2017 before decreasing significantly in 2018. Premiums have continued to drop every year since then.

Moda Assurance Co. also left the Alaska market in 2016 before returning in 2019. During Moda’s absence, only one provider offered plans on Alaska’s health insurance marketplace.

Senate Republicans unsuccessfully tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act multiple times in August of 2017. A straight repeal failed, a pared down repeal effort failed and a repeal and replace effort failed, too.

Sullivan voted unsuccessfully in favor of all the repeal efforts.

The so-called “skinny repeal" effort failed after Murkowski joined several other Republicans in voting with Democrats and independents. The late-Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, came onto the Senate floor and dramatically voted to preserve the bill in a tie-breaking vote.

Sullivan said after that failed vote that he had been elected to the Senate after hearing about skyrocketing health care costs and fewer choices in Alaska. He said his “heart aches” for hard-working Alaskans and their families.

Despite voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act several times, Sullivan has also long called for protections for preexisting conditions which is a central provision of the bill. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says eliminating those protections could impact between 50 million and 120 million Americans.

On Friday, Sullivan reiterated his support for protecting preexisting conditions, saying he had recently co-sponsored legislation that would keep those protections in place if the ACA was struck down.

Matt Shuckerow, Sullivan’s campaign manager, said the senator is focused on improving Alaska’s health care system through reforms. His priorities include ensuring eligible children can access Medicaid and protecting Alaskans from surprise medical billing.

Sullivan’s chief opposition to the ACA was to the so-called “Cadillac Tax” and the individual mandate, Shuckerow said. Sullivan helped eliminate the Cadillac Tax in late 2019 and the individual mandate in late 2017.

The Affordable Care Act contains other provisions that many Americans now rely on. It prohibits insurance companies from imposing annual or lifetime limits on covered services. It also allows children to stay on their parent’s health insurance until they are 26.

During Friday’s debate, Sullivan said he wanted that second provision to remain in effect.

Some Democrats have also been concerned that Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court risks the right to abortion established through Roe v. Wade. Murkowski told the Hill on Monday she believed that Barrett would not overturn Roe v. Wade.

The two candidates for the Senate have starkly different opinions on abortion.

Sullivan co-sponsored a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape and incest. He is endorsed by a national pro-life group and scored 0% for his voting record from a national pro-choice advocacy group.

On the other hand, Gross has been endorsed by NARAL Pro-choice America and Planned Parenthood. He believes reproductive decisions should be made between a doctor and a patient.

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