That leaves Trump with mostly rhetorical options — even if he insists otherwise — cognizant that voters consistently rank health care as a top priority and say Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 rival, would handle the issue better than the president. Meanwhile, Trump is running for reelection having not replaced Obamacare or presented an alternative — all while urging the Supreme Court to overturn the decade-old health law. And millions of Americans are currently losing their health insurance as the coronavirus-gripped economy sputters.
“I think politically, the main objective will be to have something he can call a plan, but it will be smaller than a plan. Just something that he can talk about,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy organization. “But it’s almost inconceivable that anything can be delivered legislatively before the election.”
Trump has long stumped on his pledges to kill Obamacare, the law his predecessor implemented that expanded Americans’ access to health insurance, set baseline standards for coverage, introduced penalties for not having insurance and guaranteed coverage for preexisting conditions. But conservatives say the law introduced too many mandates and drove up costs.
But after winning election in 2016, Trump failed to overturn the law in Congress — or even offer an agreed upon alternative to the law — despite holding the majority in both chambers on Capitol Hill. Democrats then retook the House in the 2018 midterms, essentially ending any chances the law, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, would be repealed.
Even some conservatives said the ongoing failure to present a concrete replacement plan is helping the Democrats politically.
Republicans, said Joe Antos, a health expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “spent basically 2010 to today arguing that the ACA is no good. After 10 years, clearly there are some problems with starting all over again. I haven’t detected very strong interest, at least among elected officials, in revisiting that.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has added pressure to address health care costs, and Trump has lagged behind Biden on his handling of the issue in polls. Fifty seven percent of registered voters recently polled by Quinnipiac said Biden would do a better job on health care than Trump, while only 35 percent approved of Trump’s handling of health care as president. And on the issue of affordability, a CNBC poll found 55 percent of battleground voters favored Biden and the Democrats, compared with 45 percent who preferred Trump and the Republicans.
“At this point, there are two huge issues, jobs and the economy, and health care, i.e., the coronavirus. If anything that’s simply been magnified,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist. “Given the fact that it’s one of the top issues, it’s not like there’s a choice but to talk about it. If candidates aren’t making statements and proposing solutions around that, it’s a requirement. Both candidates have to address it.”
Biden has campaigned on expanding Obamacare while also promising to implement a “public option” similar to Medicare, which is government-run health insurance for seniors. On drug pricing, he and Trump embrace some of the same ideas, like allowing the safe importation of drugs from other countries where they are cheaper. Biden also supports direct Medicare negotiation of drug prices, a Democratic priority that Trump supported during the 2016 campaign before reversing course.
“Donald Trump has spent his entire presidency working to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans and gut coverage for preexisting conditions,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman. “If the Trump campaign wants to continue their pattern of highlighting the worst possible contrasts for Donald Trump, we certainly won’t stop them.”
The Trump administration insists it can point to several health care victories during Trump’s term.
Trump frequently notes the removal of the penalty for Americans who do not purchase insurance as a major victory, falsely claiming it is equivalent to overturning Obamacare.
Trump also signed an executive order last year to fight kidney disease to encourage home dialysis and increase the amount of kidney transplants, and he expanded telehealth medicine during the pandemic.
More recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a Trump administration rule expanding the availability of short-term health plans, which Trump has touted as an alternative to Obamacare but Democrats deride as “junk.” The plans are typically cheaper than Obamacare coverage because they don’t provide the same level of benefits or consumer protections for preexisting conditions.
A federal judge in June similarly upheld another Trump administration rule requiring hospitals to disclose the prices they have negotiated with insurers. Price transparency in the health care system has long been a significant issue, with Americans rarely having clarity over how much their treatments will cost ahead of time. Trump called the win “bigger than health care itself,” in an apparent reference to Obamacare. It’s unclear whether transparency will force down health care prices, and hospitals opposing the rule have appealed the judge’s decision.
And on Friday at the White House, Trump held an event to sign four executive orders aimed at slashing drug pricing. The move aimed to tackle a largely unfulfilled signature campaign promise — that he would stop pharmaceutical companies from “getting away with murder.”
“We are ending the sellouts, betrayals and broken promises from Washington,” Trump said Friday.“You have a lot of broken promises from Washington.”
But the orders appeared largely symbolic for now, as they were not immediately enforceable, contained notable caveats and may not be completed before the election anyway. For instance, an order requiring drugmakers to pass along any discounts directly to seniors requires the health secretary to confirm the plan won’t result in higher premiums or drive up federal spending. But the White House had shelved that plan last summer over worries the move might hike seniors’ Medicare premiums ahead of the election and cost taxpayers $180 billion over the next decade.
Conway disputed that Trump had not made progress on issues like drug pricing.
“President Trump is directing the development of therapeutics and vaccines, has delivered lower prescription drug costs, increased transparency in pricing for consumers and is committed to covering preexisting conditions and offering higher quality health care with lower costs and more choices,” she said.
Yet a number of Trump’s other health care initiatives have faced hurdles — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The opioid crisis, which the president had touted as a top priority and campaigned on in 2016, is getting worse. Drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2019 and federal and state data shows they are skyrocketing in 2020.
“The overdose epidemic will not take a back seat simply because Covid-19 has hit us hard, and that needs to be reflected in policy,” said Andrew Kessler, founder and principal of Slingshot Solutions, a behavioral health consulting firm.
The president’s plan to end HIV by 2030 has similarly receded during the pandemic. And Trump’s proposal on improving kidney care — an issue that affects roughly 15 percent of American adults — is still in its early stages and will not be finalized until next year.