Democratic candidates for Mississippi’s two United States Senate seats that will be on the ballot Tuesday have been arguing their Republican opponents would jeopardize the mandate that insurance companies provide coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.

At Thursday’s Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hob Nob at the Mississippi Coliseum, many of the candidates spoke about health care and the issue of pre-existing conditions or were asked about it by the media. Others were asked about the issue earlier this week before the Hob Nob event. According to an NBC/Survey Monkey poll conducted in September, 20 percent of Mississippians said health care was their top issue, trailing only education that was the top issue for 32 percent of the respondents.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare by some, ensured that people could not be discriminated against by insurance companies because of a pre-existing medical condition.

Pre-existing conditions has become a campaign issue in part because President Donald Trump has opted to join in a lawsuit that would end the protections for pre-existing conditions. The lawsuit was filed by Republican state attorneys general and joined by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Because both Republican Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker, who will be on the ballot Tuesday, have been ardent supporters of Trump and opponents of the Affordable Care Act, their Democratic opponents have accused them of being a threat to the pre-existing medical conditions coverage mandate.

State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who is challenging Wicker said, “Invalidating the pre-existing coverage requirement of the ACA is more than just a political stunt. It’s a matter of life and death to many right here in Mississippi and it should be treated as a serious policy issue. …. If the 20 states that filed this lawsuit prevail, over 50 million Americans with pre-existing conditions could lose coverage or be required to pay enormous amounts in premiums. Simply put, if this lawsuit prevails it would cause an almost immediate and systemic health crisis.”

But Wicker said the goal of the lawsuits is not to gut the pre-existing coverage mandate, but to ensure better health care for Mississippians.

In a prepared statement, Wicker said, “The administration is seeking to have Obamacare overturned completely. There are many better ways to protect against pre-existing conditions without mandating a one-size-fits-all plan such as Obamacare. I support strong protections to ensure affordable access to care for all Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions. I am a co-sponsor of Ensuring Coverage for Patients with Pre-existing Conditions, which would guarantee equal access to health care regardless of health status. “

But many health care advocates say the Wicker co-sponsored bill would not guarantee the same protections of pre-existing conditions as the Affordable Care Act does.

In a statement after the bill was introduced, the American Heart Association said it was pleased  Wicker and other Republican senators appreciated the dangers for people with pre-existing conditions if the Republican attorneys general prevailed in their lawsuit. But the American Heart Association added that, with the Wicker co-sponsored bill, “Many individuals could still face higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs and, even if enrollees paid the increased premiums for many months, they could still be denied benefits because of a pre-existing condition. In short, this bill would not replace critical protections in current law if the court rules unfavorably for patients and consumers in Texas v. U.S. This is not acceptable for the patients we represent.”

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks to the media. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Democrat Mike Espy, who is challenging Hyde-Smith in Tuesday’s special Senate election to replace long-term incumbent Thad Cochran, who resigned in March for health reasons, also has made protecting pre-existing conditions an issue.

Hyde-Smith, who bragged during her Hob Nob speech of supporting Trump 100 percent of the time, appeared to distance herself from the president and Bryant, over the lawsuit that would repeal the Affordable Care Act. The governor appointed Hyde-Smith as the interim senator after Cochran resigned.

She said, “The governor’s going to do what he has to do. And I cannot speak for him but I can speak for me and I can tell you I know many people with pre-existing conditions and there’s no reason we should cut them out.”

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

She said she had not voted to eliminate the pre-existing conditions protections.

But Espy said she has. He pointed out she did vote last month against a proposal that would have required insurance premiums sold outside of the Affordable Care Act regulations to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions. A SuperPAC working on Espy’s behalf has also been circulating mailers in the lead up to the Election Day with the same message.

“We should be improving health care, not lowering standards,” Espy said. “If I’m elected, the people of Mississippi can count on me to stand up to insurance companies trying to discriminate against patients with pre-existing conditions, and to make sure that health insurance does not become junk insurance. My opponent should be called on to explain why she voted against something that would be good for so many Mississippians.”

Of her vote, spokesman Chris Gallegos said at the time, “Sen. Hyde-Smith voted to protect health insurance options for Mississippians by allowing them to purchase short-term policies. She opposed the Democrats’ resolution, which would have dismantled short-term policy options restored by the Trump administration. Mississippians need more health insurance choices.”

Espy and other Democrats say even those policies should cover pre-existing conditions.

Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who also is running against Hyde-Smith and Espy in the special election did not respond to questions about pre-existing conditions. He said previously in his “contract” with Mississippi that he would work for the complete repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and “by utilizing market-based reforms and solutions” and that he would “work to make sure every citizen has access to the same kinds of healthcare policies Congress does.”

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.