MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday that would force health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions if Republicans succeed in dismantling the Affordable Care Act, heading off potential criticism of GOP legislators on the 2020 campaign trail.
Democrats blasted the bill as a publicity stunt, saying it doesn't go nearly far enough. New Democratic Gov. Tony Evers pushed Republicans for a host of changes, including prohibiting annual and lifetime coverage limits and providing coverage for services for mothers and newborns, as well as prescription drugs.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republican leaders chose to amend the measure Tuesday to eliminate annual and lifetime limits. They scrapped the rest of Evers' revisions, saying they're outside the scope of the bill. The measure ultimately passed 76-19, with 16 of the chamber's 35 Democrats voting for it after their side spent nearly four hours railing against the bill.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff stopped short of saying the governor wouldn't sign it but warned that he would be very disappointed if all the changes he wanted weren't included. Evers himself tweeted late Tuesday afternoon that the bill in its current form would offer less benefits for fewer people.
"Republicans must stop playing politics with Wisconsinites' healthcare (sic)," Evers wrote.
Vos stressed that they were trying to work with Evers, and that the governor should realize he needs to give something to get something.
"For (Democrats) to say if we don't get everything, that would be a disappointment for the state and a bad sign of things to come, that it's 'my way or the highway,'" Vos said.
It's not certain the measure will reach Evers' desk. The bill next goes to the state Senate, but Republicans who control that chamber let a similar proposal die last session. Asked if the Senate would vote on this bill, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald replied, "We could, yeah. Maybe. I mean, maybe. I don't know."
Fitzgerald said he and Vos met with Evers on the bill last week and left not knowing what Evers might sign.
"It's pretty hard to negotiate against that," Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin Democrats made coverage for pre-existing conditions a key issue during the 2018 campaigns, ripping Republicans for joining a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. Parts of the act guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Evers, in his State of the State speech two hours after the bill passed, announced that he ordered Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw Wisconsin from that lawsuit. It's not clear if he has the power to do that, given a law passed in last month's lame-duck session requiring legislative approval to withdraw.
Republicans retained control of the Assembly and Senate after the November elections, but their first move after this legislative session began on Jan. 7 was to bring back the pre-existing coverage bill.
The measure would take effect only if the ACA is repealed, giving Republicans a win-win if the act is erased. They could boast a huge national victory while avoiding alienating sick Wisconsinites.
Assembly Democrats pounced on the bill during the floor debate Tuesday, spending four hours lambasting it. Minority Leader Gordon Hintz questioned how Republicans can support coverage for pre-existing conditions while suing to repeal the ACA.
Republicans said they were stunned Democrats weren't on board with the measure.
"Don't let excellent get in the way of good," GOP Rep. Mary Felzkowski said. "That's what you're doing."
Hintz was one of the 16 Democrats who voted for the bill.