After 80 lawsuits against Trump, this one’s the big one

Sep. 23, 2020 at 6:00 am Updated Sep. 23, 2020 at 6:11 am

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By Danny Westneat Seattle Times columnist

We all know Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson likes to sue the Trump administration. He’s done it now a total of 80 times — a rate of nearly once every other week since Donald Trump took office.

As Ferguson delights in pointing out on his website, this exceeds the 49 times that the top attorneys for the state of Texas sued President Obama back when he was president.

But there’s a court fight going on right now where by a strange quirk Ferguson entered on the side of the federal government, and it could end up being the most consequential of all — especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to tilt further to the right.

Remember Obamacare? And how we fought about it like tri-corner-hatted revolutionaries for the past decade?

It’s ba-ack — with our state, and its 825,000 Obamacare beneficiaries, in the middle of the fray.

“Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I would have described my outlook on this case as ‘concerned but confident,’ ” Ferguson told me Tuesday. “Now, I’m just deeply concerned.”

The case is called California v. Texas, in which Texas and other red state attorneys are trying for the umpteenth time to bring down the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). Yes, that’s right, Republicans are still, a decade in, trying to repeal Obamacare.

Because the Trump administration refused to defend the health care law, Ferguson along with California and some other states took the unusual move of intervening in the case so they could argue on behalf of Obamacare in place of the federal government.

The feds later switched to arguing most of Obamacare should be thrown out. Still, the case wasn’t seen as a huge deal when Ginsburg was alive. The high court had already upheld Obamacare in 5-to-4 votes, and was widely expected to do so again.

But now, assuming a new justice gets seated by Republicans, health care for tens of millions of people nationwide is definitely back on the docket, Ferguson says.

“There are potentially massive consequences for Washington,” he said, when I asked him why our state got involved.

For example, there are nearly 200,000 people here who get subsidies under Obamacare to help them buy health care policies. About 625,000 other people who used to be uninsured now get health care under the law’s Medicaid expansion. Combined, these two policies drove down Washington’s uninsured rate from 14% to 5% when the act debuted in 2013.

So many people became insured that the charity care expenses at one hospital, Harborview in Seattle, plummeted from $219 million in 2013 to $82.8 million last year.

An analysis of the court case by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a “host of Affordable Care Act provisions could be eliminated, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions, subsidies to make individual health insurance more affordable, expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and coverage of young adults up to age 26 under their parents’ insurance policies …”

What’s so “dog after a bone” about it all is that the GOP is trying to throw out the whole ACA due to changes its own party made to the law. Texas is arguing that the law is now invalid because Congress got rid of the penalty for the hot- button “individual mandate,” in which everyone was required to get insurance. But it was Republicans in Congress who made that change in the first place.

“It’s an obsession with some folks on the right,” Ferguson said. “I honestly don’t understand it. The Affordable Care Act has become ingrained in our society, it’s widely used around the state and the controversial part of it is gone. But they’re going after it anyway. I think it must still be a fire-up-the-base kind of issue.”

Is it? There are a handful of places in our state — Eastern Washington counties such as Adams, Okanogan and Yakima — where more than 43% of people under age 65 rely on Obamacare-related programs, according to the latest state data (from February). So it’s a curiosity — it’s the reddest parts of the state that are most reliant on this blue program that their red politicians are obsessed with trying to kill.

This case is scheduled to be heard at the Supreme Court on Nov. 10, a week after the election. Who knows what will happen between now and then. But if trying to cut tens of millions of people off health care in the middle of a global pandemic doesn’t get voters’ attention, then, really, what can?

Danny Westneat: dwestneat@seattletimes.com; Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region’s news, people and politics.