I’m worried. Maybe it’s time to escalate this protest. All we’re doing is quietly handing out flyers to people as they enter church for the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass. This is way too low-key for our disability rights group, ADAPT. Our usual modus operandi is to have several dozen people with a variety of disabilities occupy offices and block streets or building entrances. Often, we don’t leave until we’re arrested.
This evening, about three or four dozen ADAPTers from Illinois and Wisconsin, most of us in wheelchairs, are gathered outside U.S. Representative Paul Ryan’s church, St. John Vianney, in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan is a longtime member and used to be an altar boy here. I’m worried that my fellow ADAPTers from Chicago, who traveled two hours to get here, will feel like they wasted their time if there isn’t some action soon.
But then a buzz starts up among the milling parishioners. “They’re passing out flyers.” Our flyer features the face of the Virgin Mary and a fluttering dove. In bold red letters, it says: “Paul Ryan: No Medicaid Block Grants! Keep the Affordable Care Act!”
A tall black man emerges from the church. He’s dressed like a priest. His accent sounds Nigerian, and I later learn he is from that country. He asks if there’s someone he can speak to. Since my assignment is to deal with the priest, I introduce myself. He says he’s Father Paul, the pastor. He’s upset.
Father Paul says we have to stop passing out flyers and either come inside and worship or get off church property. I assure him we’ll be peaceful. We just want to offer flyers to anyone who wants one and explain our issue to anyone who cares to listen.
We’re here because Ryan, his parishioner, is a hypocrite. He professes to be a Christian while pushing a political agenda that’s very destructive for disabled people. Father Paul says if we don’t put the flyers away, he’ll call the police. We keep passing out flyers. Father Paul goes back inside. A few minutes later, the police arrive.
On Election Night, my wife Rahnee and I were in a hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago. It was the official gathering of supporters of U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth. Network election coverage appeared on the large screens on both sides of the stage.
A cheer went up about 7 p.m., immediately after the polls closed, as networks projected Duckworth the easy winner over Republican incumbent Mark Kirk. Duckworth is a progressive, Asian American, disabled Iraq War veteran who is spot-on regarding disability issues.
But the atmosphere was surreal as Duckworth took the stage in triumph, while on the big screens the extent of the political damage occurring throughout the rest of the country was becoming clear. It was like being at a wedding where somebody dies of a heart attack but the celebration, such as it is, goes on anyway.
The crowd filtered out quickly after Duckworth spoke. No dancing, no toasting, no basking in the glow. I said to Rahnee, “I wonder if I’ll ever not be depressed again.” The look on her face was a mix of fear and grief. We both knew what this meant. With Republicans in charge of everything, Paul Ryan was free to implement the Ayn Rand social agenda of his dreams. And that could set disabled Americans back fifty years.
Ryan’s assault on disabled folks begins with Medicaid block granting. Ryan has pushed that idea for years. The GOP’s “A Better Way” health care document proclaims that block granting “empowers states to design Medicaid programs that best meet their needs, which will help reduce costs, and improve care for our most vulnerable citizens.”
But that’s nonsense. It’s really just a cowardly way of forcing states to do the dirty work of massively cutting Medicaid spending.
As it stands now, the federal government pays a negotiated percentage of what each state’s annual Medicaid costs turn out to be. It’s an open-ended commitment. But block grants would give states a fixed Medicaid amount annually.
What happens if Medicaid expenses in your state are greater than anticipated and the block grant isn’t enough? Gee, that’s tough luck. Your state government better find the courage to make painful cuts, as block grants would probably give states broad new discretion to do.
Currently, states must serve all people with disabilities who qualify for Medicaid. Although the sixteen million low-income seniors and people with disabilities receiving Medicaid comprise only about 20 percent of the program’s enrollees, about half of all Medicaid funds are spent serving seniors and the disabled, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But if block grants give states carte blanche in determining Medicaid eligibility, the incentive to cut expensive disabled people would be alluring.
Being disabled is expensive. Beyond having extraordinary and ongoing medical needs, we must acquire expensive equipment, such as wheelchairs. We also need paid assistants to come to our homes and help us with simple daily tasks we can’t do ourselves, like getting out of bed. Medicaid is the primary, and often the only, source of public funding for meeting these needs. For all its infuriating deficiencies, Medicaid is, I believe, the primary reason that disabled Americans have made great social and political progress over the last fifty years.
A plan for fiscal year 2017 advanced by House Republicans would have cut federal Medicaid funding by $1 trillion over ten years, or about 25 percent of the total, another Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study found.
And then there’s Ryan’s obsession with destroying the Affordable Care Act, a law that brought important gains for disabled folks. The ACA bars insurers from denying coverage for preexisting conditions and did away with lifetime spending caps on people with costly conditions. It also contains the Community First Choice Option, which provides millions of extra Medicaid dollars to state governments that agree to spend the money funding programs that support disabled people to live in their homes and communities rather than in nursing homes and institutions.
Five states have signed up for this option, which could go out the window with the rest of the ACA.
Until now, Ryan’s twisted fantasies about putting the screws to poor and disabled people weren’t serious threats, because President Obama was there with his veto pen. But Trump? He’s exactly the type of mean-spirited, thick-headed accomplice for which Ryan always yearned.
Our flyer, which we slip under windshield wipers in the church parking lot, has a Bible quote, James 2:15-17: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
The police, when they arrive, order us to leave church property. But then a news crew shows up and everyone gathers at the church entrance for an impromptu press conference. Roxan Perez of Milwaukee leads it. She says of the ACA, “I’m not sure what any American with or without a disability can find as a good thing in repealing an act that has guaranteed many of us a place to live in our own homes.”
The Mass comes to an end without any of us ADAPTers leaving. We line up on both sides of the entrance. As the church bell rings solemnly, the parishioners hustle through the silent gauntlet of people in wheelchairs, trying hard not to make eye contact.
As I get back in my van to return to Chicago, I feel much better than I did on Election Night. I laugh when I picture Ryan calling ahead to make sure there are no angry people in wheelchairs waiting for him the next time he wants to go to church.
And I know this is just round one. We all plan to be back soon at a different Ryan-related venue in Janesville. And the next time, our confrontation will be in the more rowdy and aggressive ADAPT-style.
We have our work cut out. As our caravan of vehicles merges onto I-90 to return to Chicago, a sedan speeds past us. A man in the passenger seat gives us all the finger.