As the nation's top public health experts testified before a Senate committee Wednesday, Democrats turned the conversation several times back to what they say could become a big problem: COVID-19 as a preexisting condition.
Their steering of the discussion to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came in the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week and fears the ACA—and its protections for preexisting conditions—face a greater threat in the court when a challenge against the health law comes up in November.
As the medical community continues to work out the potential long-term impacts that could occur as a result of the novel coronavirus, one concern is that the pandemic could leave large numbers of Americans ineligible for care because they now have a preexisting condition, Democrats argued during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, brought up recent studies that found symptoms of heart damage among some college athletes after having COVID-19, even those who remained asymptomatic. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, M.D., acknowledged the study, calling the results "puzzling"' and saying it could turn out those individuals heal completely but might also end up showing long-term health effects.
Murphy said it's a good example of why the preexisting condition question needs to be carefully examined.
“What we believe is—because of this potential for long-term health effects—that any diagnosis of COVID, whether you’re symptomatic or not will become a preexisting condition," Murphy said. It's "likely, probable that insurance companies if they are allowed to discriminate against people with preexisting conditions—as will happen if the Supreme Court justice is put on the court and the ACA is invalidated—we will see rates skyrocket for anyone who has had COVID. I think that’s something we all need to talk about over the course of the next few weeks."
The issue of COVID-19 as a preexisting condition has been gaining attention in the last several days. As Politico reported, President Donald Trump could announce new executive orders around health issues as early as Thursday morning, including one order to keep insurance protections for preexisting conditions no matter what happens in the Supreme Court.
Trusting a future vaccine
For their part, several Republicans sought to move the narrative to concerns about the effectiveness of economic shutdown compared to the damage it caused, as well as highlighting the actions the administration took despite recent reports that Trump attempted to publicly downplay the seriousness of the pandemic.
Much of the hearing also focused on the nation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically regarding the ability of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ward off political interference.
CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D., specifically came under fire multiple times for changing guidance on the CDC website in recent weeks over who should be tested for COVID-19 and how the virus is transmitted.
Redfield said the guidance, which was widely interpreted to mean there should be less testing, was misconstrued, and the CDC updated it to make it more clear. He said recently removed guidance that discussed aerosolized transmission hadn't been technically reviewed.
During the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chairman of the committee, asked whether the health leaders would be willing to get vaccinated as soon as one is available.
"Would you be willing to take that for your family?" Alexander asked FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D.
“Absolutely yes, senator,” Hahn said. “I have the complete and absolute faith in the expertise of the scientists who are terrific at FDA. If they were to make a determination that a vaccine were safe and effective, I would do that and encourage my family to take the vaccine.”
Alexander also asked Fauci to weigh in on questions about whether the administration was cutting corners in its efforts to quickly develop a vaccine.
“Not at all,” Fauci said. “The rapidity of where we are right now is a reflection of the technological advances in vaccine platform technology as well as the risks that were taken financially so that we’ll have doses [of a vaccine] available when a decision is made by the FDA as to the safety and efficacy. There’s no cutting corners.”