ATLANTA — The most expensive congressional race in U.S. history may hinge on the wonky topic of preexisting conditions.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, trying to seize a suburban Atlanta seat held by Republicans since 1979, has spent weeks railing against the GOP health care bill passed by House lawmakers this spring. In debates, he’s repeatedly trotted out the story of Matt, a 7-year-old with a heart condition, saying his parents would have to pay “tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars” a year to keep their son alive if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Responding with her own polished anecdote, Republican Karen Handel tells voters she’s well-aware of the importance of covering preexisting conditions because her sister was born without an esophagus.
“For you to suggest that I would do anything that would negatively affect her is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable,” Handel told Ossoff during a televised debate. “The facts are, ladies and gentlemen, the bill in the Senate right now provides more protections for individuals with preexisting conditions.”
Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker, and Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, are vying for the seat once held by Tom Price, the former orthopedic surgeon tapped to become President Trump’s top health official.
The close race — widely seen as a referendum on both Trump and the GOP health care bill — has drawn enormous national attention. Total spending has exceeded $35 million, with most of it coming from donors living outside of Georgia.
Voters here in the 6th District are affluent — boasting a median household income of nearly $84,000 — and increasingly diverse. And the district has rapidly turned purple: Trump won Georgia’s 6th District by just one percentage point, even though former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won here by 23 points in 2012.
A recent poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the majority of residents disapprove of the GOP health plan. That includes 34-year-old Annie Blitzen, who says there’s “no way” she or her wife could afford even basic health care without the protections they have enjoyed under the Affordable Care Act.
“The whole point of insurance is to spread the cost across the whole pool,” said Reid Laurens, a 60-year-old nonprofit executive with a history of sleep apnea and colitis who intends to vote for Ossoff. “If you segregate the high-risk people, automatically rates of people with preexisting conditions will be too high to afford.”
The current version of the American Health Care Act — which is now being reworked in closed-door meetings in the Senate — would not allow insurers to outright deny people insurance due to a preexisting condition.
But it would let states waive certain protections — and that, in turn, would enable insurers to charge some customers much higher premiums and to sell coverage that offers far fewer benefits. Those changes could effectively block some people with preexisting conditions out of the market. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates 6.3 million people nationwide would be directly impacted.
Both Ossoff, 30, and Handel, 55, have avoided delving too deeply into the nuances of the Republican plan. But the health bill has loomed large on the campaign trail nonetheless.
Ossoff’s campaign has blasted the AHCA, saying it will strip insurance from 23 million Americans over the next decade, according to a forecast from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Ossoff has also claimed the bill would “gut protections against massive price hikes for Georgians with preexisting conditions.” (Politifact this week rated the statement only “half true,” since it’s not clear whether any given state would actually apply for waivers to let insurers to raise rates or limit coverage.)
The Democratic candidate has also attacked Handel over her days as an executive at the Susan G. Komen foundation, which raises money to fight breast cancer. She played a role in 2012 decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood — a decision the foundation later reversed, under public pressure. Handel then resigned. Ossoff has suggested the incident shows Handel has been willing to cut important health care resources for women.
One of his ads features an OB-GYN who survived breast cancer calling Handel’s role in the controversy “unforgivable.”
Handel responds the Planned Parenthood decision wasn’t hers alone. And she has her own ad up in which a supporter with cancer, Anne Lewis, praises her as a staunch advocate for women’s health: “She stands up for us, and she stands by us, when we need her most.”
Lewis, an attorney who’s battled for rare cancer known as leiomyosarcoma since 2012, worked with Handel during her time as secretary of state. She said Handel’s attention to detail gives her a “better grasp of the nitty gritty” needed to reform an issue as complex as health care.
And, because Handel and her husband Steve each get insurance through Obamacare, Lewis says the GOP candidate has a better sense of what works and what doesn’t with the current health law. Handel has said their monthly premiums have soared from $350 to $1,200, and their deductibles have quadrupled, from $2,500 to $10,000. Given her experience, Handel says Obamacare is “collapsing” and must be replaced.
Last month on the campaign trail, she urged Georgians wary of the AHCA to not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
That’s a sentiment Jake Evans, executive vice president of the Atlanta Young Republicans, believes voters will rally behind on June 20.
Evans, a healthy 30-year-old attorney, says his deductible of $3,000 is so high now, it’s like he doesn’t really have health insurance. He values protections for people with preexisting conditions but says he trusts Handel to preserve those while keeping health care affordable for people like himself.
“There’s no way to know how this is going to play out,” Evans said. “But Handel supports opening up the free market, and as a Republican, we share the belief that a free market will end in a better result.”
Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have come to Georgia to stump for Handel. So has House Speaker Paul Ryan, who stood next to her and told the crowd she’d help “repeal and replace Obamacare.”
This weekend she’s expected to get a last-minute boost on the trail from none other than the district’s former representative, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.