U.S. Sen. Al Franken said opponents of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) raised a "ridiculous" argument at the Supreme Court Wednesday when they told the justices that the nation's health care reform law does not allow premium-lowering tax credits in 34 states where the federal government runs insurance exchanges.
"I was actually there when the law was written and passed," Franken told a press conference after the oral arguments. "I know what our intention was."
It was not, the Minnesota Democrat said, to exclude millions of Americans from health insurance coverage by denying them subsidies needed to afford policies. Franken accused ACA opponents of seizing on a few words in a 2,200-page bill to "reverse engineer" an argument that would kill the entire law.
The health law does say that premium subsidies are available to state-run exchanges. But it also says that the federal government will operate exchanges in states that refuse to form them. Subsidies, mandatory participation and coverage of pre-existing conditions are the three-legs of the legislative stool that support health reform. Getting rid of any of them will undermine the rest, most experts agree.
Joining Franken at the press conference were Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and premium tax credit beneficiaries Bonita Johnson of Detroit and Terry Donald of St. Petersburg, Fla. Johnson and Donald receive premium subsidies from federally run exchanges. Johnson said her health insurance would cost four times as much without subsidies and no longer be affordable. Donald, whose wife has cancer, said his insurance would be six times as much and he would have to drop coverage.
"This was not anyone's thinking" when the health care law passed in 2010, Franken said.
Just a few months after voting to unionize, home health care workers announced Thursday they have agreed on a contract that would raise their pay floor to $11 an hour, provide funding for training and offer pay protections, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota said.
The contract is now heading for a ratification vote by members and still needs approval by the Legislature, which in 2013 pushed through legislation allowing the union certification vote. The contract would affect 27,000 newly-unionized members.
Union leaders said the contract would also provide for five days of paid time off for full-time employees.
"No one should have to choose between caring for their sick children and paying the bills," said Summer Spika, a home health care worker who was part of the bargaining negotiations, according to a statement. "This part of the contract is an important step towards fixing one of the many injustices facing the workers like me who care for seniors and people with disabilities across our state.”
The path to a union vote last summer and now a newly-formed contract was rocky. Republicans and other groups vociferously opposed the unionization effort and it overcame legal challenges.
Photo: Home health care workers cheered when announcing last August a decision to unionize. (Brian Peterson/Star Tribune)
State Rep. Greg Davids has asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to review details of a 2011 contract between MNsure and Dr. Jonathan Gruber, a consultant whose work related to the federal Affordable Care Act has become the subject of controversy.
"In light of troubling remarks by Dr. Gruber and MNsure, I believe that a review of Dr. Gruber's work, and payments made to him, is necessary," Davids, R-Preston, wrote Monday in a letter to Swanson. Davids is a veteran lawmaker and in January is set to resume chairmanship of the powerful House Taxes Committee.
Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology health economist, worked with Minnesota officials in 2011 and 2012 in assessing options for the venture, then in planning stages, that later became MNsure. He earned $340,000 from the contract.
Gruber also advised President Obama during development of the Affordable Care Act. He came under new fire earlier this month when comments he made at a 2013 conference resurfaced, in which he suggested that "the stupidity of the American voter" made it possible for Congress to approve the law. He has since apologized for what he called an off-the-cuff remark.
Davids suggested Swanson should look further into why Gruber's report to the state of Minnesota was delivered later than initially promised. Some of Gruber's enrollment projections for MNsure have since fallen short, and Davids said he also wants to know whether MNsure still considers Gruber's enrollment predictions for future years valid.
A spokesman for Swanson had no immediate comment on David's letter.
(This post has been updated.)
With questions about the state's health exchange and Republican campaign ads swirling, Gov. Mark Dayton dashed from a Thursday afternoon event about housing without taking questions from the waiting press.
Dayton's decision to leave the event through a side door with his staff was unexpected. His staff had indicated he would answer questions from reporters.
It was also unusual. The DFL governor generally makes himself available to the media.
Dayton, who is up for re-election in 12 days, made remarks at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Housing Awards announcement in St. Paul, listened to comments from two lawmakers and then, about 25 minutes in to the event got up to leave.
His spokesman, Matt Swenson, said the governor said as he left that he would not take questions from the press. Reporters who followed him out of the side door he exited saw his state vehicle exit the building's rear parking lot.
On Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that the Dayton administration had sought lower rates from an insurer that signed up to provide health insurance through MNsure, the state's health exchange. That insurer, PreferredOne, dropped out of the exchange this year.
Republican candidate for governor Jeff Johnson said Dayton should have stayed to answer questions about that.
"That’s part of the job of the governor whether it is him, me or someone else," Johnson said. He suggested the Dayton administration is panicking over the recent MNsure news.
He pledged that if he were governor, he would not avoid reporters.
"I will never unexpectedly run away from you," he said.
Also Thursday, the Minnesota Republican Party decided to delete the photo of a young boy who died from abuse in a television commercial trashing Dayton. That decision came after pressure from the boy's grandmother.
Thursday afternoon Dayton appeared at a campaign event with former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. He was also slated to appear at a fundraiser with the former first lady in the evening.
Photo: The governor's caravan driving away from Thursday's housing event. Source: David Joles, Star Tribune.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken reiterated his stance Thursday that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision that limited access to birth control must be overridden, in a women’s health roundtable in St. Paul that focused largely in the fallout from this summer’s Hobby Lobby ruling.
The ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that requiring corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception violated federal law protecting religious freedom. Franken told the panel of assorted women lawyers, citizens and advocates that it ruling must be overturned.
“This turns on its head the whole notion of freedom of religion,” Franken said. “To me, it’s about the freedom of a woman, in this case, to choose whether she wants to use contraception or not. Because of the (Affordable Care Act) it’s a basic, effective, essential healthcare.”
Franken said he is open to FDA review of making oral contraceptives more accessible to women—a position McFadden has taken. However, he added that the key issue is that it be covered by insurance, not how accessible it may be.
“The issue here isn’t where you get it,” he said. “It’s who pays for it.”
The roundtable included Winnie Williams of Woodbury, a mother of two teenage daughters, one with a benign brain tumor with symptoms treated thorough a specific kind of birth control.
“When I look at this issue, I look at it and say ‘You just told me and my daughter that we might not be able to have control of excessive bleeding, depression, migraines, brain tumors,” she said. “You’re telling me that my employer controls whether I have that as part of my medical care. And that, to me, is just unconscionable.”
McFadden, however, said Franken’s criticism of Republicans on women’s issues an “election year gimmick” in efforts to distract Minnesotans from current issues like Ebola and the ongoing Islamic State threat.
“You’ve seen this play out all across the country. It’s right out of the Democrats’ political guidelines as this is how we try to divide people.” McFadden said.
Franken said Thursday that the roundtable was to address issues important to women and men alike.
“The job of a senator is to pay attention to a lot of things all at one time,” he said.