Just three days before Monday’s rally in Asheville’s Pack Square Park to oppose the U.S. Senate’s version of a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Lindsay Furst, a local teacher and activist, went to a coffee shop with her fellow organizers who shared her lack of sleep, she told the crowd in front of the Biltmore offices in downtown Asheville. “We hadn’t slept because we were scared — scared for our neighbors, our friends and families — scared for perfect strangers all over the country — who will die because of this legislation,” she said emphatically into a megaphone.
According to a Congressional Budget Office report, if passed, the Senate bill dubbed the Better Care Reconciliation Act, would leave the country with 22 million more people uninsured by the year 2026, and 15 million of those would be uninsured as soon as next year. The report also says that the bill would reduce the cumulative federal deficit by a net of $321 billion over the same decade. The largest portion of those savings would come from reduced outlay to Medicaid. The bill would save the federal government $772 billion by reducing or ceasing federal matching funds for Medicaid programs and place a per capita-based cap on Medicaid payments. But it would also cost the government $541 billion in revenue from the repeal of high-income individual taxes and fees enacted by the ACA.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chose to postpone the scheduled vote on the bill due to several key Republicans withholding their support for the controversial draft legislation. With only a narrow majority in the Senate, Republicans would need almost every one of their 52 members of the Senate to vote in favor of the bill in order to pass it. Democratic opposition is united.
Speaking out against the bill Monday were a heaping handful of local movers and shakers.
Tyron Greenlee spoke from his Christian worldview about his aversion to a plan that will negatively impact the most vulnerable members of the community. “How does a man of faith and follower of Jesus conduct himself in a country that feels more and more threatening to me and people like me every minute?” he asked. He says the book of Mathew in the Bible describes Jesus asking his followers to take care of the sick and those in need. “I am called as a man of God, as a follower of Jesus to to care for, protect and lift up ‘the least of these,’ those vulnerable, at risk, in danger, prison populations, the uninsured, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions who will be mortally wounded by this legislation.” And he says that’s exactly who will be hurt by the proposed reduction of Medicaid and the elimination of the current health care law.
Pisgah Legal Services attorney Jaclyn Kiger, who objects to the bill in part because of the significant cuts to Medicaid, told the crowd, “Access to affordable quality health care will reduce poverty.” Meanwhile, she says, the proposed bill will make average people pay more for less and will “utterly destroy Medicaid.” She says that local leaders are trying to address the mushrooming crises of opioid abuse and unmet mental health care needs, but the stripping of Medicaid will undermine those efforts. “We are seeing first responders overwhelmed by calls,” she told Xpress after the rally in reference to the opioid epidemic.
“Medicaid is the proven, cost-effective program for treating substance use disorder, and it’s proven to be effective in the opioid battle.” She cautions that pulling funding for Medicaid would only result in hindering those efforts.
Opioid drug overdoses recently surpassed car accidents to become the leading cause of death for people younger than 50 nationwide. In 2015, Asheville first responders saw 70 overdose incidents. Last year, the calls for service related to overdose rose 67 percent to 117. [See “Cure for pain: Preventing opioid-related deaths,” Xpress, Jan. 25, 2017]
In a statement released by Sen. Richard Burr, he explained his support for the bill, rejecting the idea that the legislation will hinder the response to the opioid crisis, “This draft legislation outlines a number of initiatives that are good for North Carolina,” he says, “While not perfect, the bill does provide the funding we need to support our most vulnerable North Carolinians. I’m encouraged that it keeps the law protecting people with pre-existing conditions. The legislation also reverses $31 billion in cuts made to Medicaid by Obamacare, extends millions of dollars in funding to our Community Health Centers, and provides $2 billion to the fight against the opioid epidemic.”
Speaking in the final slot came Jasmine Beech-Ferrara, Buncombe County commissioner and director of Campaign for Southern Equality, with a call to action for the energized rally-goers. She encouraged everyone present to call Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis every day to remind them of the opposition to the bill in question. “You need to call them today and tomorrow and the day after,” she says. “And you need to get everyone you know to keep calling. Our job this week, as Americans, is to raise our voices as loudly as we can to say that health care is a basic right and this reckless bill must be voted down.”
With passion, Furst joined the other speakers in rallying the small army of activists to their purpose, protection of Medicaid and the gains made toward affordable coverage for all. Through her teacher eyes, she says she sees all of the progressive issues she champions as children’s issues, and that’s one reason she is particularly outraged by the proposed cuts to Medicaid that, according to many analysts, define the bill currently being considered by the Senate.
“Half of all births in this country receive coverage from Medicaid. Thirty-nine percent of all children, across all demographics receive Medicaid. Seventy-six percent of all poor children in this country — black, white, brown and in between — receive Medicaid. Sixty percent of children with disabilities — that’s a lot of the kids I teach, those are my kids — receive Medicaid. And all of the community services provided for profoundly disabled adults and children are funded federally by Medicaid. … This is real,” admonishes Furst. “It affects real people.”