Hundreds of people flooded a downtown Austin church on Sunday for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s town hall meeting with constituents, where they discussed how a proposed Republican health care bill could affect their medical benefits and supplemental programs like Medicaid.
Austin’s lone Democratic congressman was hosting his fifth town hall meeting this year at the First United Methodist Church in anticipation of a Senate vote this month on a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health care legislation. Replacing “Obamacare” has been a priority for President Donald Trump and the GOP-majority Congress.
The latest version of the Republican bill would repeal the mandate that requires individuals to carry insurance and for businesses to offer it. It also would allow insurers to offer plans without options like maternity and mental health coverage at cheaper rates. Additionally, it would roll back expansion of Medicaid, which the bill’s critics say would mean deep cuts for those enrolled in the program.
“There is not anybody in this room or in this community that is not affected in some way by what is being proposed here,” Doggett said of the legislation. “In all the different versions of this bill, there has been an unrelenting attack on Medicaid.”
He said 15 million Americans could lose Medicaid coverage under the new legislation.
On Sunday, many Medicaid recipients showed up to the town hall meeting to share how the federal program had improved their lives and what a loss in coverage would mean.
Spencer Cook, 30, said he credits Medicaid with giving him the life he has today: a college degree, a good job and a girlfriend. Cook has a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which affects muscle movement, and has relied on Medicaid his entire life to afford expensive medical care.
“Every morning since I was about 10 years old, a stranger has come into my home, lifted my body out of my bed and gotten me ready for the day,” Cook told the crowd. “Medicaid makes that possible. If you are listening to me now, chances are that your taxes have helped pay for that. Thank you.”
Unlike other congressional town hall meetings around the country, where attendees have been combative and loud, the people confronting Doggett were impassioned but largely in agreement with the congressman’s position and concerns about the GOP effort.
Attendees struggling with lifelong disabilities, veterans and the mentally ill, as well as health care workers, talked about what cuts in Medicaid coverage would mean for them and their industries. Dozens of people also lined up to ask Doggett questions.
Many were concerned about how the legislation would protect people with pre-existing conditions because the Affordable Care Act had banned insurance companies from denying coverage on that basis.
Debbie Hawkins said her 31-year-old son Shane lost his job and driving privileges when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Four years after his initial diagnosis, she was concerned what the Republican bill would mean for people like her son with pre-existing conditions.
“We are deathly afraid,” Hawkins said. “It’s not that we want a handout. We want protections. And to know that his insurance rates aren’t going to fly through the roof when he needs them the most.”
Doggett responded to questions for nearly an hour.
After the meeting, people were asked to submit their personal health stories on postcards, which they dropped in a box to send to lawmakers. Others stayed to share anecdotes on video.
“It’s inspiring to see that so many people came to this,” Christina Luikart, who struggles with an autoimmune disease and her mother with diabetes, said after the town hall meeting. “I hope that’s an eye opener.”
The Congressional Budget Office was expected to release an analysis of the latest GOP bill on Monday, but the move was delayed. The Senate vote that was planned this week also has been pushed back.
“This gives us another week to spread the message, explore the defects and sound the alarm,” Doggett said.