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People with disabilities are staging protests in senators’ offices all over the country

“I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid” shouted protestors with disabilities arrested for occupying Sen. Jeff Flake's office.

Toni Saia and Gabrielle Ficchi in Senator Jeff Flake’s office on Wednesday.
Gabrielle Ficchi

President Donald Trump called the Republicans’ health care plan “mean.” Disability advocates have another word for it: deadly.

Worried about the proposed cuts to Medicaid in the Senate Republicans’ version of the health care bill, several activists with disabilities staged a sit-in at the Phoenix office of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Wednesday. One protester, Anastasia Bacigalupo, live-streamed her arrest on Facebook as she and two other women being arrested shouted, “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid.” According to AZ Central, four other people were arrested for trespassing.

As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has noted, cuts to Medicaid have stark consequences for people living with disabilities. The Republican plan would allow the federal government to set a cap on the amount of money spent on each person through Medicaid. Over a decade, starting in 2020, this cap would cut federal contributions to Medicaid to about $116 billion, Matthews reports. Advocates worry that states, strapped for cash, will begin to limit aid for people with disabilities who need services to live independently, including wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, or care attendants.

Without access to this equipment, people with disabilities could face mass hospitalization. Like the rest of the population, people with disabilities are much happier when they can live independently and not under the care of an institution. Having the freedom to live inside one’s home and community is something most people take for granted, but for people with disabilities that wasn’t always the case.

“We fought so hard to have our right to live in the community recognized, and now … we’re still fighting for our freedom from incarceration in institutions,” Gabrielle Ficchi, one of the protestors at Sen. Flake’s office, told Vox. “Home and community services are what allow us to do our jobs, live our lives, and raise our families,” she continued.

The protest itself was organized by members of the national disability rights organization Adapt, a nonpartisan organization that has staged protests for decades. These have included rallying for access to public transportation for people with disabilities in the 1980s and protesting the White House over proposed Medicaid cuts under former President Barack Obama.

The advocacy group has stormed several public official offices over the course of the current health care debate. In June, they staged a die-in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office. Almost a dozen activists also took over Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) office in Denver just last week for more than 48 hours, with some activists reportedly sleeping in their wheelchairs. In both instances, protestors were arrested, with images of police officers dragging them out of their wheelchairs going viral. In a press release, Adapt said “people with disabilities will go without needed services and be forced into institutions or die.”

Protesters went to Flake’s office because he hasn’t announced how he will vote on the Republican health care Senate bill. In a statement to Vox, he refused to take a position, but thanked the protestors for showing up.

“While I have not yet seen a revised version of the bill, I can say my decision will be based on how it balances two principles,” he said. “The first is that the legislation needs to ensure that those who currently have coverage do not have the rug pulled out from under them. The second is that the Senate must agree on a solution that is fiscally sustainable. I would like to personally thank everyone for coming out to share their stories, and I will be sure to keep any concerns in mind as I evaluate the bill.”

For Ficchi, Flake’s answer is insufficient. “Our message was very clear — we were not leaving without a no vote … we would rather go to jail than sit by and watch 22 million Americans lives be in jeopardy.”

Liz Plank is a senior correspondent for Vox Media.