More than 300 health care activists, disability rights advocates, and organizers gathered on second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday morning to oppose Senate Republicans’ Graham-Cassidy health care bill.
The bill would sharply reduce spending for Medicaid by billions of dollars by tying it to medical inflation, blow up Obamacare’s marketplaces, and open the door for states to curtail protections for patients with preexisting conditions.
One person attending was Kimberley Benyr, whose 12-year-old daughter Madeleine died of liver cancer on September 12. Four rounds of chemotherapy had not been enough. Less than two weeks later, the former auto insurance salesperson flew by herself to Washington, DC. She’s here to remind senators that even though her daughter’s life couldn’t be saved, millions of others depend on the kind of care that could be stripped away should Graham-Cassidy become law.
“Maddy didn’t make it, but there were hundreds of other children in that hospital who need Medicaid to have a chance,” said Benyr, 42, of Bella Vista, Arkansas, before showing her daughter’s death certificate to this reporter. “If you’re not on Medicaid and your child gets sick, you are in extreme danger [of medical bankruptcy] through no fault of your own.”
The line of activists Monday morning snaked through four separate hallways and into the Hart Senate Office Building. The activists have arrived as Senate Republicans are furiously whipping to get their health care bill to 50 votes before the September 30 deadline.
The Graham-Cassidy hearing is the hottest ticket in town, in one video: pic.twitter.com/y4prO1DA5C— Jeff Stein (@JStein_Vox) September 25, 2017
But activists on the front line of the fight are planning a show of force that the Republican caucus can’t ignore. Even as Trump is tweeting about the NFL, health care advocates remain focused and are ready for what they hope is one final push to defeat Obamacare repeal.
The resistance is ready for yet another health care fight
Since the health care debate began, advocacy groups, liberal organizations, and “resistance” leaders have waged an all-out war against the GOP health care bill — staging sit-ins, clogging the airwaves, and organizing mass acts of civil disobedience across the country. Given that Republicans have full control of Congress, they say it’s been their only hope.
“We want these staffers to feel as if they’re under siege from the rest of America, from a country that hates this bill,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of the progressive advocacy group CREDO.
The purpose of the activism rests on the assumption that Republican senators may be responsive to public pressure. That may be a debatable premise, given that the Republican Senate got within one vote of passing a “skinny repeal” bill amid a wave of activism against the bill. But activists counter that Republicans initially planned on repealing Obamacare by last February and pinpoint the public pressure as the reason they’ve been delayed for so long.
“Every senator has a mental Richter scale in which they can measure the scale of the upheaval caused by any political movement. They look to a key set of signals for how destructive an earthquake is going to be,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.
The signs are again there that Republicans will risk a political earthquake by passing the bill. On Monday, a new poll came out showing that only about 25 percent of the public approves the Graham-Cassidy bill, confirming an earlier finding by Public Policy Polling last week. That bill showed that, contrary Sen. Bill Cassidy’s (R-LA) promises, only 20 percent of Americans think the GOP bill will result in more Americans gaining coverage.
Democrats have moved quickly to try to make Republicans feel the heat. One group, Save My Care, has launched six-figure ad campaigns in West Virginia, Alaska, and Maine urging moderate Republicans to oppose the bill. The organization launched another TV ad blitz on Monday highlighting that the bill is opposed by the American Medical Association, AARP, The American Cancer Society, and Medicaid directors in all 50 states.
And then there’s the activism.
Adapt maintain the front lines of the fight against Graham-Cassidy
Danny Saenz, 57, woke up at 2:30 am on Monday morning to begin sounding the alarm against the latest effort to repeal Obamacare. Saenz, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, wore a bright yellow shirt proclaiming “MY MEDICAID MATTERS” as cries of “Kill the bill!” echoed around the Senate hallways.
“They’re trying to kill people with disabilities,” said Saenz, arguing that reducing Medicaid payments would wind up reducing the amount of home health care. “People have to pay attention. They’re trying to throw people off of Medicaid.”
Saenz is a member of Adapt, a national disability rights organization that fears Republicans’ proposed Medicaid cuts and has staged high-profile acts of civil disobedience in Republican Senate offices. Adapt activists have been on the front lines of the Obamacare repeal front since Republicans took control of Congress this January.
Eiryn Griest Schwartzman, 20, is studying public health at community college and in Medicaid. Woke up at 430 am to be here since 6 @eiryngs pic.twitter.com/PsAMkEFudK— Jeff Stein (@JStein_Vox) September 25, 2017
On Monday, they were joined primarily by what activists know as “Birddogging Nation” — primarily the activist groups Housing Works and the Center for Popular Democracy. (“Birddogging” is the practice of following around and badgering elected officials over a particular issue.)
“The hundreds of people you see are trying to send the strongest message that they possibly can to senators that we do not want them to vote to take away our health care. Tens of millions of people around the country are counting on us,” said Jennifer Flynn Walker of CPD.
Then there’s Planned Parenthood, which was expected to bring activists into the Capitol on Monday as well. They planned on staging a press conference with two Democratic Senators — Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) — near the hearing at around noon on Monday.
Benyr, the Arkansas woman whose daughter died earlier this month, planned on being in Dirksen through the hearing. As her daughter was dying, Benyr recalled, a nurse at the Little Rock Children’s Hospital approached her to discuss the Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare. The nurse said she was worried that Republicans’ proposed Medicaid cuts would gut funding for children’s hospitals across the country.