Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House has turbo-charged Congressional Republicans’ drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But leading Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, now find themselves confronted by a fierce response from citizens alarmed by the threat of losing health care benefits on which their lives may depend.
Deep fears about potentially life-shattering changes ignited a protest outside Speaker Ryan’s parish church on Saturday night in Janesville, Wisconsin, attended by about fifty passionate activists sponsored by ADAPT, the feisty disability-rights group.
“If people knew what Paul Ryan is doing, he would not be nearly so comfortable doing it,” said Mike Ervin, an ADAPT member. In addition to the disability-rights action, there were protests against repeal in seven other Wisconsin cities over the weekend, reflecting a nation-wide upsurge to defend gains under the ACA.
Mike Ervin (l) and other activists gathered outside Speaker Ryan’s parish church on Saturday night in Janesville, Wisconsin protest of Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act.
Rolling back the Affordable Care Act will eliminate crucial provisions disabled people need to maintain their independence, activists say, including protecting patients with pre-existing conditions and a ban on life-time spending limits. Repeal could also wipe out funding for programs that allow disabled people to remain in their homes rather than being placed in nursing homes.
Whatever happens, Paul Ryan will be at the center of it.
“Paul Ryan will be the point person on whatever will hit the House floor,” observes U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents a district adjoining Ryan’s in the Badger State’s south-central region.
The Republican attack on Obamacare plays on widespread public discontent with U.S. health care costs, which are roughly twice as high other advanced nations. The ACA has only marginally addressed that problem. But it has succeeded in insuring over twenty million people not covered before, and protecting the public from some of the worst abuses by insurers. The public is about evenly split on its view of the Affordable Care Act. Most recent polls indicate that only a small minority of voters across the United States—20 percent percent in one study, and just 14 percent in another—want to wipe out the ACA before they are certain a new program providing coverage is actually in place.
The meaning of ACA’s potential elimination is frightening some of the nearly thirty million direct beneficiaries of the program. Ingrid Hoerz, a retired teacher, attended a town hall meeting with Representative Pocan on Saturday in Janesville—just outside the border of Ryan’s district. She spoke about her deep anxiety over coverage for their two adult sons, who have mental-health conditions and learning disabilities. Both sons could obtain affordable mental-health treatments and medications through the Affordable Care Act, which allowed them to search for work.
“Now we’re looking at this being taken away,” she told a crowd of about fifty people, (another 4,500 viewed the event on Facebook Live, according to Pocan’s office.) The medications required by one son alone would cost $1,712 a month, along with costly psychiatric sessions. “He would no longer be able to work, to be a productive member of society,” Hoerz said.
Similar uncertainty haunts Alyssa Watt, a graduate student who holds down two-part-time jobs plus an internship. With no health coverage associated with these positions, she was fortunate to obtain health care through the ACA with the help of a modest subsidy of just $75 a month. “That’s not much, but it is make-or-break for me, enough for eating and gas,” she said at Pocan’s health-care event. “I don’t know whether I will have healthcare coverage after this year,” she said, adding that might jeopardize her studies if she had to find a full-time job to obtain insurance.
Dr. Jeff Huebner, a Madison physician reminded the crowd of the major swath of adult Americans protected against being excluded from insurance based on pre-existing conditions. Dr. Huebner said the Republicans should follow the ancient health dictum of “do no harm,” and not tear down the ACA without a new structure in place to shield the public from health and financial crises.
Ryan, like Trump, has confidently pledged that Republicans will enact a solid substitute for ACA “concurrently” with their repeal of the program. He has tried to brush aside widespread and growing concerns that his party lacks a serious health plan of its own, after having failed to produce one during Obama’s tenure. But Ryan’s dubious claim about a viable GOP alternative was laid bare by a cancer survivor’s question at a January 12 town hall meeting televised on CNN.
Jeff Jeans, a lifelong Republican and former Reagan campaign worker, began by telling Ryan, “Just like you, I hated the Affordable Care Act.” But blindsided at age forty-nine by cancer, Jeans suddenly found himself an ACA believer after coverage through Obamacare saved his life.
“Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I’m standing here today alive,” he said. “I rely on the Affordable Care Act to be able to purchase my own insurance. Why would you repeal the Act without a replacement?”
In response, a visibly tense Ryan insisted that the Republicans would not abandon people, saying, “We wouldn’t do that.” He claimed he and his allies would produce “something better,” but offered nothing specific. Instead Ryan referred Jeans to a Republican website offering a set of broad objectives for GOP health policy. Ryan also airily suggested that Jeans could find coverage through Republican-endorsed “high-risk pools,” neglecting to mention the long waiting periods and astronomical premiums that make such pools inaccessible to many.
Ryan’s talk of a “much, much better” plan is entirely empty. There is no plan. And more and more Americans are seeing right through his claims to the contrary.