The 2018 Midterm Elections’ Impact on the Future of Health Care

Health care was the number one issue on voters’ minds in last week’s midterm elections. Throughout the country, state and local ballot initiatives focused on health care issues such as Medicaid expansion, access to abortions, medical marijuana legalization, and more. On the campaign trails, the overwhelming majority of Democratic candidates touted popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act and made promises to offer continued protection to patients with pre-existing conditions. In the face of the ACA’s growing popularity among constituents, some Republican candidates made first-time pleas to protect such patients, but many avoided stumping on health care after failing to repeal the ACA last year 

Over the next two years, Americans should expect two things concerning federal health care legislation. First, a Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House will likely prevent the passage of any meaningful, sweeping health care legislation. Second, that same gridlock will likely prevent remaining key ACA provisions from being repealed by legislation. As a result, states and localities are the likely battlegrounds on which health care policy debates will be fought. This much was revealed on election night itself. 

Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah joined 34 other states and the District of Columbia by expanding Medicaid coverage to more low-income individuals. In fact, an estimated 325,000 people are expected to gain access to Medicaid as result of the passage of those three ballot initiatives. Though Kansas, Maine, and Wisconsin did not feature Medicaid expansion as ballot initiatives, each state elected a Democratic governor who campaigned on the issue. Prospective legislation to expand Medicaid in those three states would provide access to coverage to an additional 325,500 individuals.  

Marijuana legalization was on the ballot in four states this past election. Voters in Michigan made the Wolverine State the 10th in the country and 1st in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana. Voters in Utah and Missouri legalized medical marijuana, raising the total number of states that allow medical marijuana to 33. However, a similar medical marijuana initiative failed in North Dakota. Notwithstanding, Democratic governors-elect such as J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, Laura Kelly in Kansas, and Tony Evers in Wisconsin joined colleagues in expressing desire to introduce legalization legislation during their terms.  

Voters in Alabama and West Virginia, a state which re-elected Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, passed ballot initiatives which will explicitly ban abortion in their state constitutions with 59% and 51.7% of support, respectively. Although these initiatives passed, the Supreme Court precedent set in Roe v. Wade precludes a constitutional ban on abortion. Nonetheless, such support may indicate further legislative challenges to the landmark case in those states’ legislatures and courthouses. In contrast, 64% of Oregon voters rejected a proposal to prohibit the use of public funds for abortion. 

Voters across the country should not hold their breath if they are waiting for federal single-payer health care or the repeal of the ACA. Those prospective legislative proposals will not disappear during the next two years of bifurcation in our legislative bodies, but they are very unlikely to materialize. What is far more likely, and what we already witnessed on election night, is that state action and debate concerning health care reform promises to be robust and gritty. After these midterm elections, 45 million additional Americans find themselves under Democratic governance. The success or failure of each party to enact meaningful health reforms on state and local levels could very well inform this country’s next election, and by extension, the federal health care landscape.