CAPITOL HILL – Healthcare is the hot topic of the moment in the U.S. Senate, and last Wednesday, Democrats brought out their heavy hitters to rally opposition to the Republican plan. Several prominent senators made appearances at a rally in front of the Senate chambers held June 21, attended by several left-wing groups, including Ultraviolet and Progressive Maryland, the day before Republican leaders in the chamber unveiled their proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), called the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). Although details of the bill were not known at the time, senators said the House version offered a good idea of what it would contain – and they did not like it.
“President (Donald) Trump may have actually said it best. He said that Trumpcare is ‘mean,’” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.). “President Trump may not know much about healthcare – he sort of admitted it – and he’s certainly not the person I’d go to for policy on women’s care, but let me tell you, President Trump is our country’s top expert on mean.”
The bill text, released the next day, includes and even strengthens many portions of the House bill. It cuts Medicaid beginning in 2021 and lowers taxes for corporations and higher-earning individuals. It retains the House repeal of an ACA provision that keeps costs lower for seniors and allows them to be charged up to five times more than younger patients for insurance. Mental health coverage would no longer be required under Medicaid and states could apply for a waiver from essential health benefits, the minimum coverage standards under the ACA.
At the rally, a hundred or more activists cheered for the senators as they lambasted cuts to Medicaid or Medicare and defended Planned Parenthood, which would be defunded in the House bill and be blocked from federal reimbursements for one year under the Senate bill. The general consensus was to improve ACA, not replace it, as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
“Every Democrat, from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin and everyone in between, is united in defeating this,” Schumer said. “We’re going to win this fight.”
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) said the bill would be a “u-turn on the progress we’ve made” on healthcare since the ACA’s passage. Van Hollen was speaking at a rally in Bowie on Saturday, one of several held by Democrats around the country to demonstrate the appeal of the law around the country in advance of the Senate’s vote, anticipated this week.
“The new hospital is a perfect example of the Affordable Care Act at work. And I can tell you, hospitals throughout Maryland, whether in Prince George's County or the Baltimore area or rural hospitals, will be very badly hurt if the AHCA (American Health Care Act, the House bill) passes,” he said. “Because patients will be unable to access affordable care by going to the hospital, a lot of these hospitals will end up spiraling downwards.”
He said Americans across the country need to engage with the issue and contact their representatives to make sure their wishes are known, and the benefits to ACA are fully realized. “I do believe that the stories that have been coming forth from people across Maryland and around the country are ultimately what will turn the hearts of many of the senators around the country,” Van Hollen said. “But we need, first of all, for those voices to be heard and amplified.” Democrats also objected to the way the bill’s rollout was handled. Republicans in the Senate had been debating and drafting the bill in secret, without holding hearings or inviting minority party input. Many senators, such as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said the debate should be done in public, and should also include discussion of Democratic healthcare reform proposals.
“What we should be doing today is we should be talking about how, in America, we are going to drive down the costs of healthcare, drive down the costs of prescription drugs, and make sure that every human being in this country is covered,” she said.
Some in the Democratic Party want to go even further than saving ACA: they want to create a national health system like Great Britain, Australia and many European countries operate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (IVt.), an avowed socialist, said he believes that is the eventual outcome of the healthcare policy debate.
“Our job is to fight and join every other industrialized country on earth. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” he said. “The day will come, sooner than later, when we will have a Medicare-for-all, single payer program.”
For now, the immediate goal for Democrats is to defeat BCRA. Schumer said he knew of seven Republicans leaning “no” as of Wednesday. Only three of them are needed to kill the measure.