On Tuesday, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress for his sixth State of the Union. Compared to last year, when the president’s speech included nine paragraphs devoted solely to the implementation of the PPACA and encouraging consumers to enroll, this year’s speech was relatively sparse in healthcare mentions. Instead, the speech focused heavily on economic policy, with the president declaring that the country had turned the page from the economic and financial crisis that dominated his first few years in office. The president also called for major tax reform to, in part, help fund a free community college program.
The president mentioned healthcare only in passing, touting the enrollment data from the first year of exchanges and the decreased rate of healthcare inflation. President Obama noted that, “In the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage” and followed that he would not support any bill that would undermine the health law or take away insurance for individuals and families. Unlike last year, where he made a significant push for individuals to go to the exchanges, the president made no direct promotions to enroll ahead of the February 15 exchange coverage deadline.
The president proposed two new health-related programs. The first calls for new funding into a “precision medicine” initiative that will create targeted treatments for cancer and other diseases. The other calls on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, an update on the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, to allow for up to seven days of paid sick leave, which would aid the estimated 43 million private-sector workers without any paid sick leave. This follows a memorandum by the Administration earlier this month to grant up to six weeks of paid sick leave to federal employees after the birth or adoption of a child. Another $2 billion of federal spending was proposed to help states develop paid family and medical leave programs.
In reaction to the address, Republicans made several official and unofficial responses. The official party response was delivered by newly inaugurated Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who hammered the president for the healthcare law. Ernst touched on the cancelled policies and higher costs, and avowed that the Republican Congress will “keep fighting to repeal and replace a healthcare law that’s hurt so many hardworking families.” Ernst’s rebuttal was followed by responses from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Curt Clawson (R-FL-19), who delivered tea party responses. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH-8), when speaking to the media after the address, countered the president on healthcare by attacking the 30-hours definition in the law, arguing that it is leading to fewer hours and reduced wages for middle class workers.
NAHU released its own statement in response to the address, acknowledging the decrease in the rate of uninsured, but pointing out that access to more coverage is meaningless if the coverage and cost of care is unaffordable.