Rep. Andre Jacque in the Assembly chamber at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, November 9, 2017. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

The state Assembly could vote on a bill to preserve health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions as soon as next week, but its fate beyond that chamber is unclear.

Legislators debated the proposal, backed by 61 Republicans and one Democrat between the Republican-led Assembly and Senate, in an Assembly committee on Tuesday. The committee is set to vote on the bill Thursday afternoon.

Democrats on the committee argued that while they agree pre-existing condition protections are needed, the bill being proposed isn't comprehensive enough. Republicans countered that other health insurance issues could be addressed in separate legislation. 

"More work will need to be done to ensure Wisconsin’s health insurance marketplace continues to provide high-quality, more affordable coverage for everybody. This legislation builds a strong foundation for future efforts," said Tim Lundquist, director of government and public affairs for the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans.

Approving the legislation is a priority for Assembly Republicans, who introduced it as the first bill of the legislative session. 

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said earlier this month it's not clear the bill could pass the Senate.

"I don't want to over-promise on that right out of the gate because … we’re back in the same position we were before where the Assembly had passed something and we’re over here working on trying to get the votes," Fitzgerald said.

The effort is still a priority for the Senate, Fitzgerald said, but he wants to take up a bill that will earn votes from both parties. 

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said Tuesday morning he hadn't read the entire proposal yet, and did not say whether he would sign it into law. Evers campaigned on protecting and expanding access to health care, including preserving protections for pre-existing conditions.

"My point is it’s important that whatever passes the Legislature has to be equal to or better than what exists at the federal level (under the Affordable Care Act)," Evers told reporters on Tuesday. 

Under the legislation being considered, if the Affordable Care Act is struck down, health insurance providers could not deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. However, under federal law, the state cannot apply that requirement to private, self-funded insurance plans. 

Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, argued that employers with self-insurance plans would be unlikely to impose pre-existing condition clauses even if they were allowed to do so because it would hurt their employee recruitment efforts. 

Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said the bill seemed "more like a publicity stunt" than a genuine attempt to craft effective health care policy, a comment that bill author Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere, said offended him.

Jacque said he would be willing to address other insurance concerns in separate legislation, arguing every piece of legislation can't include everything every lawmaker wants. 

Democrats' primary objections stem from the fact that the bill does not require insurers to cover essential benefits and does not prohibit insurers from imposing annual or lifetime coverage limits. Jacque said he would be interested in working with Democrats on a bill to address annual and lifetime caps.

"My concern is this goes down a rabbit hole — if you don't have essential health benefits, there's no guarantee people can get the coverage they need or the medication they need," said Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville. "Essential benefits cover the things people with pre-existing conditions will need."

The Assembly approved a similar bill last session, but it failed to pass the Senate.

A federal judged in Texas ruled Obamacare unconstitutional in December, but it is still being enforced as the lawsuit is appealed.

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