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Health care overhaul enters third year of political friction

| Saturday, March 24, 2012

HARRISBURG -- Two years have not lessened debate over the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act among politicians, who used its anniversary on Friday to tout the benefits or to predict dire fiscal consequences from the full implementation of the health care law in 2014.

More important than the anniversary are three days of arguments that begin on Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court from a multistate lawsuit filed in Florida that the Pennsylvania attorney general joined. The justices could uphold the law, overturn it or strike down portions.

A provision that begins in 2014, requiring everyone to carry insurance, draws the most criticism and is a key factor in the lawsuit. Insurers began phasing in other requirements in 2010, including one giving adult children through age 26 eligibility for coverage under their parents' policies.

The anniversary brought occasion for political posturing from U.S. Senate hopefuls in Pennsylvania, a congressman and the head of the state Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Tom Corbett.

Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander, at a Lancaster news conference with U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Chester County, predicted the law "will have a dire effect on our ability to serve our most vulnerable citizens."

Expanded eligibility will add 800,000 people to the state's Medicaid program by 2019, and by 2020, the department's budget will climb from 40 percent of the state's budget to 60 percent, Alexander said.

The federal government has covered most costs Pennsylvania has incurred so far, said a spokesman for state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn dismissed Alexander's comments as a "partisan attack on a law that will improve life for millions of Pennsylvanians."

"What the Corbett administration left out of the equation is there are also offsetting savings," said state Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Pennsylvania could save at least $1 billion by 2019 through required discounts on prescription drugs, Markosek said.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said it's not surprising that Republican leaders would use the anniversary to recount their opposition to the health care law.

"Key aspects of the legislation remain very unpopular with voters, and Republicans feel that this can be one of their most potent election issues, especially if the economy continues to improve through the fall," Borick said.

Tom Smith, a Republican Senate candidate from Armstrong County, issued a statement characterizing the law as "the massive bill that career politicians never read." He noted that it "continues to be filled with unfortunate surprises, costing more than promised, insuring less than promised, and eroding more freedoms than we could have imagined."

Former state Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County, another Republican Senate candidate, called the law an "unconstitutional power grab."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who voted for the bill, would not want to remind people of his vote, asserted state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason.

"Even President Obama is pretending the anniversary isn't happening today," Gleason said.

Casey's campaign could not be reached for comment.

"There's nothing to apologize for with this legislation," Burn said. "I do not see where Republicans will get any traction, when the economy is on the mend, and we are providing health care to those who can't afford it."

Yet, said Borick, "the health care law can be one of the key liabilities for Sen. Casey, and there is no doubt that the eventual Republican nominee will make that issue a cornerstone of his campaign."

Joseph Vodvarka of Allegheny County is challenging Casey in the Democratic primary. The winner will face the GOP winner of a five-way primary among Smith; Rohrer; David Christian of Bucks County; Steve Welch, the party-endorsed candidate from Chester County; and former Rick Santorum aide Marc Scaringi of Cumberland County.

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