Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Ad's health care claims against Joni Ernst mostly accurate

A screen shot from the “Ruth” ad attacking U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on health care.
A screen shot from the “Ruth” ad attacking U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on health care.

What is Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s voting and donations record related to health care? Our fact checker takes a look at the claims made in a recent attack ad against Ernst.

Introduction

“Sen. Joni Ernst took $1.8 million from special interests.”

“Joni Ernst voted to allow insurance companies to discriminate against preexisting conditions.”

Source of claims

These claims were in a 30-second ad attacking Ernst, a U.S. senator from Red Oak up for reelection in 2020. In the ad, a woman called Ruth from Des Moines talks about her adult daughter, Ashley, being diagnosed with a fibroid tumor, which her mother said would be considered a preexisting condition that might put future health insurance at risk.

The ad is sponsored by the left-leaning group, Iowa Voices, which incorporated in Iowa in March as Iowa Forward, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. The group isn’t required to list its funding sources, but its website says it advocates for issues including paid family leave, affordable health care, lower prescription drug prices and a higher minimum wage.

The Des Moines Register and Open Secrets reported Aug. 27 that Iowa Voices has bought or reserved $600,000 worth of TV ads bashing Ernst for her votes against the Affordable Care Act.

Analysis

As the source for its first claim about Ernst getting $1.8 million in campaign contributions from special interests, Iowa Voices points to the Center for Responsive Politics. This nonprofit, nonpartisan group was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1983 by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Hugh Scott (R-Penn.) to “track money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy,” according to a 2011 post by the Columbia Journalism Review.

The center does that tracking through its Open Secrets public database, which gathers data from Federal Elections Commission filings.

“Special interest” is a loaded phrase common in politics. It use implies political action committees or donors linked to corporations that might benefit from being on good terms with a U.S. senator. But you also could argue that anyone who makes a political donation has an interest in a candidate or election.

Open Secrets reports Ernst has received $1.46 million from PACs since 2015, when she joined the U.S. Senate. When the Fact Checker asked Iowa Voices spokesman Ben Cobley how the group got to $1.8 million, he said the group also included “contributions from individuals who listed their occupations to be within specific industries, such as pharmaceuticals or the insurance industry.”

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Open Secrets reports contributions by sector, for PACS and individuals. Grouping individual contributions from just two sectors — “health” and “finance, insurance and real estate” — the total since 2013 is about $2.6 million.

But it’s too broad to place the “special interest” label on all these donors. While they could be executives attempting to gain favor with Ernst, they also could be mid- or lower-level employees who just like her politics.

We give Iowa Voices a B on this claim.

When the group claims Ernst voted to allow insurance companies to discriminate against preexisting conditions, Iowa Voices points to her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The House passed the American Health Care Act, HR 1628, on May 4, 2017. That legislation, a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, would have allowed insurers to set premiums based on a patient’s health status if that patient had let his or her coverage lapse, the Congressional Budget Office reported.

“Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law ...” the office determined.

Ernst was among 51 Senate Republicans who voted July 25, 2017, to begin debate on the House-passed legislation.

The Senate GOP ultimately couldn’t get enough of its members to sign on the repeal, even when the caucus stripped it down to a “skinny” version that reduced insurers’ ability to block consumers with preexisting conditions. Ernst was one of 49 Republicans who voted for the skinny repeal July 28, 2017.

We give Iowa Voices a B for this claim, too. The group doesn’t get an A because the July 25, 2017, vote on the House version of an Obamacare repeal was a vote to start debate, not to approve the legislation.

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But Ernst also wasn’t one of the three senators — John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — widely reported to be preventing passage of other bills, such as the Graham/Cassidy/Heller/Johnson amendment condemned by groups like the AARP for undermining protections for preexisting conditions. This indicates she had signaled support for Senate repeal efforts.

Conclusion

This ad is designed to show how Iowans with preexisting health conditions were at risk of losing coverage with 2017 Obamacare repeal attempts — which Ernst supported. The ad also points out Ernst’s financial support from PACS and individuals who work in the insurance and health care industries. Iowa Voices is mostly right about these claims, which is why we gave this an overall B.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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