ST. GEORGE – Tempers flared and an overflowing crowd repeatedly shouted down Rep. Chris Stewart during a town hall meeting Tuesday night as the Republican congressman tried to explain his party’s plan to do away with former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Stewart spoke at a Dixie Republican Forum town hall meeting Tuesday night via video chat, giving a statement and then taking questions from the audience about the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
The audience appeared to be a mix of residents – young and old, Democrat, Independent and Republican – rather than the solidly conservative crowd the Dixie Republican Forum generally attracts.
At issue was what the Republican Party, under President Trump’s leadership, will propose to replace the health care plan. Attendees were concerned about losing coverage and being denied insurance because of preexisting conditions.
“I’m all about changing what needs to be changed, fixing what needs to be fixed,” one woman said. “But to repeal without having something in the process … seems incredibly irresponsible.”
Audience members also expressed concern about the continuation of Medicare. Brent Holloway said he had called Stewart’s offices repeatedly trying to get reassurance on the issue.
“Please, will the congressman just make the statement that guarantees that you will not disrupt Medicare,” Holloway said to Stewart. “I’m counting on it, I’ve worked my entire working life, and I don’t want privatized Medicare.”
Stewart replied that he did not know anyone in Washington D.C. who was in favor of privatizing Medicare, but his response was drowned out by many audience members saying “(Speaker of the House) Paul Ryan” as someone they believed was in favor of privatization.
Ryan has not ruled out privatization of Medicare as part of a major overhaul aimed at controlling the program’s long-term costs, the Washington Post reported Dec. 2.
Others expressed concerns about being able to afford any insurance. Even with the Affordable Care Act, an estimated 50,000-60,000 Utahns were caught in a coverage gap created by the Affordable Care Act and the state’s Medicaid limitations.
“Since you said that Medicaid would cover people, and Utah’s Medicaid rolls are closed and have been closed for years, what do you propose to do with all those people that can’t get health insurance?” one woman asked.
Stewart said that each state had an open enrollment period so that people don’t wait until they’re injured or sick before they seek insurance. Medicaid is run by the states and states have some flexibility, Stewart said.
“I think Utah has done a wonderful job of helping those who really need help through Medicaid,” Stewart said.
“We don’t have Medicaid,” several audience members shouted.
Republicans have promised to help people that don’t have insurance, audience members said, but the crowd didn’t seem convinced that enough details have been released.
“Where is the plan?” audience members shouted, drowning out the congressman for a time.
Stewart said the replacement for the Affordable Care Act is outlined in the American Health Care Reform Act of 2017, and he hopes everyone will read the 184-page document. The act was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives Jan. 4.
Many audience members were concerned about losing health care coverage due to preexisting conditions, including one woman who said she suffered from PTSD and anxiety. Under the Affordable Care Act, she said she had received mental health coverage for the first time in her life.
Another woman was concerned about her father, who relies on coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act for life-saving medication.
In defense of the Republican’s plan to repeal the health care act, Stewart said he has heard from thousands of Utahns who had lost jobs or had their hours cut because of the Affordable Care Act. Others have complained of rapidly rising health insurance premiums and high deductibles.
For the many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, Stewart said, it’s nearly impossible to come up with up to $5,000 deductibles.
Rising costs and limited enrollment have driven many companies out of the insurance Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace, he said, leaving many Americans – including Utahns – with only one company to choose from, and this limited competition results in higher costs.
The Affordable Care Act will not be repealed without having a replacement law ready, Stewart said, and there will be plenty of time for the transition.
The Republicans’ replacement for the Affordable Care Act will include a health savings account, a tax credit for insurance premiums and other changes. It also includes tort reform to reduce defensive medicine, such as a physician ordering too many tests or procedures out of fear of a malpractice lawsuit.
And instead of compelling people to buy health care insurance, Stewart said the plan is to make it attractive and affordable so consumers will want to purchase it.
“Our legislation will make it easier and cheaper to get portable insurance, increases access to and flexibility of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), reforms medical liability laws, spurs competition between insurers and protects individuals with pre-existing conditions,” Stewart said in a statement earlier this month.
Gov. Gary Herbert urged caution earlier this month in a letter to U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, warning that health coverage for 180,000 Utahns would be in jeopardy if the Affordable Care Act is repealed without a replacement plan.
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