WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the winner of the presidency and party control of the Senate still unclear the morning after Election Day, the future of the nation’s health system remains uncertain. At stake is whether the federal government will play a stronger role in financing and setting the ground rules for health care coverage or cede more authority to states and the private sector.
Should President Donald Trump win and Republicans retain control of the Senate, Trump still may not be able to make sweeping changes through legislation as long as the House is still controlled by Democrats. But — thanks to rules set up by the Senate GOP — the ability to continue to stack the federal courts with conservative jurists who are likely to uphold Trump’s expansive use of executive power could effectively remake the government’s relationship with the health care system even without signed legislation.
The president has also pledged to continue his efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and if the Supreme Court overturns the sweeping law as part of a challenge it will hear next week, the Republicans’ promise to protect people with preexisting medical conditions will be put to the test. In a second term, the administration would also likely push to continue to revamp Medicaid with its efforts to institute work requirements for adult enrollees and provide more flexibility for states to change the contours of the program.
If former Vice President Joe Biden wins and Democrats gain a Senate majority, it would represent the first time the party has controlled the White House and both houses of Congress since 2010 — the year the ACA was passed. A top priority will be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout. Biden made that a keystone of his campaign, promising to implement policies based on advice from medical and scientific advisers and provide more directives and aid to the states.
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But also high on his agenda will be addressing parts of the ACA that haven’t worked as well as its authors hoped. He pledged to add a government-run “public option,” which would be an alternative to private insurance plans on the marketplaces, and to lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 60.
While Democrats will continue to control the House, the final makeup of the Senate is still to be determined. And even if the Democrats win the Senate, they are not expected to come away with a majority that would allow them to pass legislation without support from at least some GOP senators, unless they change the Senate’s rules. That could lower expectations of what the Democrats can accomplish — and may lead to some tensions among members.
But who controls Washington, D.C., is only part of the election’s impact on health policy. Several key health issues are on the ballot both directly and indirectly in many states. Here are a few:
In Colorado, a measure that would have banned abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy — except to save the life of the pregnant person — failed, according to The Associated Press. Colorado is one of seven states that don’t prohibit abortions at some point in pregnancy. It is also home to one of the few clinics in the nation that perform abortions in the third trimester, often for severe medical complications. The clinic draws patients from around the nation, so residents of other states would have been affected if the Colorado amendment passed.
In Louisiana, however, voters easily approved an amendment to the state constitution to say that nothing in the document protects the right to, or requires the funding of, abortion. That would make it easier for the state to outlaw abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which makes state abortion bans unconstitutional.
The fate of the Medicaid program, for people with low incomes, was not on the ballot directly anywhere this election. (Voters approved expansions of the program in Missouri and Oklahoma earlier this year.) But the program will be affected not only by who controls the presidency and Congress, but also by who controls the legislatures in states that have not expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act. North Carolina is a key swing state where a change in majority in the legislature could turn the expansion tide.
In six states, voters were deciding the legality of marijuana in one form or another. Montana, Arizona and New Jersey were deciding whether to join the 11 states that allow recreational use of the drug. Mississippi and Nebraska voters were choosing whether to legalize medical marijuana, and South Dakota was the first state to vote on legalizing both recreational and medical pot in the same election.
Magic mushrooms were on two ballots. A measure in Oregon to allow the use of psilocybin-producing mushrooms for medicinal purposes passed, and a District of Columbia proposal to decriminalize the hallucinogenic fungi was leading.
Also approved was a separate ballot question in Oregon to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, and mandate establishing addiction recovery centers, using some tax proceeds from marijuana sales to establish those centers.
As usual, voters in California faced a lengthy list of health-related ballot measures.
For the second time in two years, the state’s profitable kidney dialysis industry was challenged at the ballot box. A union-sponsored initiative would have required dialysis companies to employ a doctor at every clinic and submit infection reports to the state. But the industry spent $105 million against the measure. It failed, according to AP.
Voters were also asked to decide, again, whether to fund stem cell research through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via Proposition 14. Voters first approved funding for the agency in 2004, and since then, billions have been spent with few cures to show for it. The measure was winning in early returns.
California has been at the forefront of the fight over the so-called gig economy, and this year’s ballot included a proposal pushed by ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft that would let them continue to treat drivers as independent contractors instead of employees. Under Proposition 22, the companies would not have to provide direct health benefits to drivers but would have to give those who qualify a stipend they could use toward a premium for health insurance purchased through the state’s individual marketplace, Covered California. The measure was approved.
Finally, voters in the Golden State were asked whether to impose higher property taxes on commercial property owners with land and property holdings valued at $3 million or more, which could help provide new revenue earmarked for economically struggling cities and counties hit hard by COVID-19, as well as K-12 schools and community colleges. Community clinics, California nurses and Planned Parenthood jumped into the thorny political battle over Proposition 15 — taking on powerful business groups — eyeing revenue to help rebuild California’s underfunded public health system. The measure was too close to call in early returns.
Democrats in California, who control all statewide elected offices and hold a supermajority in the legislature, had been positioning for a Biden win, and some were already penning ambitious health care legislation for next year. Should Biden win, they said, they plan to crack down on hospital consolidation and end surprise emergency room bills, and some were quietly discussing liberal initiatives such as pursuing a single-payer health care system and expanding Medicaid to cover more unauthorized immigrants.
JoNel Aleccia, Rachel Bluth, Angela Hart, Matt Volz and Samantha Young contributed to this story which first appeared in Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.