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West Virginia's General Election is Tuesday, November 3. WVPB will be covering the statewide races and offering NPR coverage of the national elections.

Morrisey, Petsonk Spar Over Health Care, AG Duties In Debate

Sam Petsonk and Patrick Morrisey

Candidates running for the office of West Virginia’s attorney general debated on Wednesday the scope of the elected position and the implications of an ongoing lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Republican incumbent Patrick Morrisey and Democratic challenger Sam Petsonk sat evenly spaced around a table with MetroNews host Hoppy Kercheval, who said that the three men had all tested negative for the coronavirus beforehand.

Still, even as the state reported more than 4,500 active coronavirus cases on Wednesday and four COVID-related deaths in the last 24 hours, Morrisey emphasized in his opening statements some promises for the “post-COVID world.”

“West Virginia needs to rely on someone with a rich amount of experience [and] a record of accomplishment, who's gotten a lot done fighting the opioid epidemic, who knows how to make this office a huge value-added for the state,” Morrisey said.

Morrisey has been attorney general for eight years. In a previous interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, he referred to his experience on Capitol Hill as former legal counsel for health-related Congressional committees. In 2018, Morrisey lost a run for the U.S. Senate against long-serving Democrat Joe Manchin.

Meanwhile, challenger Petsonk — an attorney focused on labor law who has represented West Virginia coal miners in cases for black lung and retirement benefits — led Wednesday’s debate with the Affordable Care Act, and the roughly 200,000 West Virgnians who have access to health care through that law.

“That's one in 10 West Virginians [who] will lose their health insurance,” Petsonk said. “That's tens of thousands more who have tax credits that help them buy private insurance on the individual marketplace, and it's thousands more coal miners.”

Morrisey is one of 18 attorneys general behind a federal lawsuit in 2018 against the ACA’s individual mandate clause, requiring that individuals have health insurance coverage.

Legislation from Congress that took effect in 2019 eliminated a tax penalty associated with this clause.

Morrisey told Kercheval on Wednesday that he believes this clause is unconstitutional.

“We have to make sure that we go after the skyrocketing premiums of Obamacare,” Morrisey also said of the lawsuit. “The reality is that hard-working families in West Virginia are getting crushed by sometimes 30, 40 percent increase in premiums, they can't afford health care insurance.”

Health experts from Penn State, the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University say premium increases also are the fault of increasing costs in the health care industry and changes to the ACA by the Trump administration.

Petsonk said Wednesday that millions of dollars for treating substance use disorder in West Virginia hinge on the Affordable Care Act.

Similarly, he said, the law is responsible for protecting people with pre-existing health conditions like diabetes or cancer from losing coverage or facing discrimination by providers. “I don't think he'll win this lawsuit because it's so dangerous, it's so disloyal to the people of West Virginia,” Petsonk said of Morrisey.

In West Virginia, a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly 37% of non-elderly West Virginians in 2018 had pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or cancer.

“No one expects that the whole law is going to be thrown out,” Morrisey said. “It's just not going to happen. [The Affordable Care Act is] going to go back to a district court. There'll be some changes, that mandate will be struck, but we will open up the law to go after those skyrocketing premiums.”

Morrisey was a proponent for a West Virginia Senate bill earlier this year, which he said would’ve worked to protect pre-existing condition coverage in the event the ACA is repealed. Members of the House Health and Human Resources committee killed the bill.

Another shorter bill from Senate Democrats also failed to pass.

Candidates Differ On Job Duties

Morrisey told Kercheval Wednesday that Petsonk “doesn’t even understand how this office goes.”

To Morrisey, his job for the last eight years has been “defending so many of the state’s energy jobs.”

He referenced his office’s support for natural gas companies, who have faced legal challenges from environmental advocates for pipeline proposals.

In July, Morrisey’s office celebrated victory in the U.S. Supreme Court alongside attorneys for Dominion Energy, who fought with environmental advocates for years to build a pipeline across the Appalachian trail. The company ultimately ended up backing out of the project shortly thereafter.

Petsonk called Morrisey’s interpretation of the job eight years of “power grabs.”

“Mr. Morrissey has completely abandoned that primary duty to serve as the people's lawyer and to counsel the agencies of the state,” Petsonk said.

The last day for West Virginians to request an absentee ballot is Wednesday, Oct. 28. Early voting lasts until Saturday, Oct. 31. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Voters can learn more about polling places from their local county clerk.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.


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