Protesters Arrested at Raucous Senate Hearing on Health Care

As the U.S. Senate met on Sept. 25 to debate repealing the federal health care law, Brandon Ezekiel, of Philadelphia, attended the hearing with help from the grassroots group Disabled in Action. (BRITAIN EAKIN/ Courthouse News Service)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Emotions flared Monday as Republicans unveiled new details about their latest proposal to repeal and replace parts of the federal health care law.

The afternoon meeting of the Senate Finance Committee got off to a raucous start hours earlier as hundreds of people, many in wheelchairs, packed the hallways of the Senate Dirsken building early Monday to make their way into the tiny hearing room.

“No cuts to Medicaid!” they shouted as soon as Rep. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, started the hearing.

One by one, U.S. Capitol police officers arrested the protesters, pulling some of them out of their wheelchairs as they carried them out of the room.

Republicans then attempted, once quiet was restored, to unravel the criticism levied against the latest plan put forth by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Bill Cassidy, R-La.

Cassidy testified that the bill will neither cut Medicaid expansion nor end protections for people with pre-existing conditions afforded under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In addition to eliminating the individual and employer mandates, provisions of the law that require each class to obtain health insurance, the proposal would switch insurance subsidies and Medicaid funding to block grants, dividing up federal funds among states based on poverty levels and other factors that impact health care costs.

Cassidy said that states would still have the flexibility to continue to fund the block-grant program, which expanded Medicaid under the PPACA, if they choose to do so.

Graham meanwhile said the proposal would also address what he called the inequitable distribution of health care funds. Right now, 40 percent of federal funds go to four states – California, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts – that make up about 20 percent of the U.S. population.

“This is not only inequitable, but unsustainable,” Graham said. “Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson restores parity among the states and reforms spending inefficiencies.”

Graham called the Affordable Care Act a “disaster” in South Carolina, which he said had five insurers in 2014 but now has a single carrier. Next year premiums are estimated to rise more than 30 percent there, he said.

Capitol Hill police forcibly remove a man in a wheelchair to restore order at a Sept. 25, 2017, hearing on the federal health care law, which Republicans hope to repeal and replace. (BRITAIN EAKIN, Courthouse News Service)

By next year, Graham added, 45 percent of all counties in the United States will have only a single provider – and in some cases no provider.

Touting the bill during testimony before the committee, Graham boasted that the bill is backed by a broad coalition including President Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the conservative news outlet Breitbart.

But the bill is opposed by many state governors – including Republicans – and major health care groups like the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association.

Dick Woodruff with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network told the committee that the bill would weaken protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

“Although the bill would technically prohibit plans from denying individuals coverage due to pre-existing conditions, it would allow states to waive the requirement that prohibits health plans from considering an individual’s health history when determining premiums,” he testified.

That means those getting cancer treatment could be faced with health plans that have no limits on monthly premiums, making them potentially unaffordable to those who need high-cost treatments, he said.

Capitol Hill police removed the protesters in the above photo from a Sept. 25, 2017, Senate hearing on the federal health care law, which Republicans hope to
repeal and replace. (BRITAIN EAKIN, Courthouse News Service)

Woodruff also expressed concern about a provision of the bill that would allow states to waive essential health benefits, which he said would encourage insurers to streamline basic plans that would leave cancer patients and survivors at risk for receiving inadequate treatment.

It could also gut parts of the Affordable Care Act that prohibit caps on care because the current law ties that to essential health benefit requirements, he said.

This could lead Americans with severe financial hardships if they get diagnosed with cancer or other seriAll Pagesous illnesses, he added.

Such concerns hit close to home for some who traveled to attend the hearing.

Brandon Ezekiel of Philadelphia said he came to Washington with grassroots group Disabled in Action to send senators a message.

“We’re all here for one common cause and that’s to kill this Graham-Cassidy bill that was put on the table to take away Medicaid,” Ezekiel said during an interview before the hearing. “Don’t take it away – expand it. Make it universal for everyone.”

Capitol Hill police forcibly remove a man in a wheelchair to restore order at a Sept. 25, 2017, hearing on the federal health care law, which Republicans hope to repeal and replace. (BRITAIN EAKIN, Courthouse News Service)

Ezekiel, who has cerebral palsy but is still able to work, expressed concern about aspects of the bill he thinks will remove coverage for community-based services, which allow people with disabilities to stay in their homes rather than live in a skilled nursing facility.

Ezekiel said it’s preferable for people with disabilities to live independently with attendant care, which provides help with daily living activities, like getting dressed and bathing.

“If you take that away, you know what’s left? Everybody that fought to get out of a nursing home is going to go right back,” he said.  

Ezekiel said he is also concerned about what changes to Medicaid could mean for his quality of life. The motorized wheelchair Ezekiel uses needs to be replaced about every five years, and costs roughly $9,000.

Without it, it would be hard for him to get around.

“I can’t pay for this,” he said. “Medicaid helped me get it. And that’s what they don’t understand.”

“Leave Medicaid alone, it’s fine,” he continued. “Leave the funds where they’re at because if you mess with Medicaid, you’re killing us all. That’s going to be our blood on your hands.”

 

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