Hours before the sole hearing on the GOP’s last-ditch bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, hundreds of activists from around the country set up camp in the halls of the Senate office building, waiting to grab a seat in the room and register their opposition to the legislation.
Under the watch of several dozen armed Capitol Police officers, the activists put on Grim Reaper costumes, donned bright red shirts blaring “I AM A PRE-EXISTING CONDITION,” and periodically struck up chants of “Kill the bill.” Many planned to be arrested protesting the bill.
“It’s the most horrible legislation in our lifetimes,” New York City retiree Judy Cutler told TPM. “It will kill people, literally. And it will cost our family so much I don’t think we can afford our care.”
Cutler, a former secretary for a child psychiatrist, said she fears her ADD and other mental illnesses would allow insurers under the bill’s waiver provisions to hike her premiums.
“They’re getting rid of pre-existing conditions. That tells you everything you need to know.”
Ruefully referencing the recent Senate vote to budget $700 billion for the military, Cutler asked, “We have plenty of money to kill people, but not enough to save people’s lives and make them healthy? It’s a tragedy.”
At the front of the line—so long that it that snaked around one Senate office building and into another—dozens of activists in wheelchairs from the disability rights group ADAPT had been waiting since about 5:30 a.m. ET for a chance to be in the room.
“By bus, by plane, by train we’ve come,” Mike Oxford from Lone Star, Kansas, told TPM. Oxford, who uses a wheelchair, said it was the bill’s threat to traditional Medicaid more than its repeal of the Affordable Care Act that motivated him to attend.
“Medicaid pays for the home care services that people with disabilities need,” he said. “The money will shrink. Those block grants are going to go away. States will not replace that money. States have proven that they’re not as good at protecting, planning, and overseeing these programs. The states have been in charge and they suck at it. That’s why we want federal protections. That’s why I’m here.”
As Oxford spoke, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the top Democrat on the committee holding the hearing, began distributing pizza slices to the activists at the front of the seemingly endless line.
“You are the faces of political change in America,” he cried out to loud applause.
— Alice Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) September 25, 2017
Wyden told reporters that while there are a number of health care fires that need to be put out—from the Trump administration’s sabotage of open enrollment to instability in the individual market—preventing the Graham-Cassidy bill from passing this week is his and other Democrats’ priority.
“Today is all about beating Trumpcare,” he said. “It would once again allow states to get back in the business of discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions. People are going to get less care and it’s going to cost more money.”
Wyden vowed to use today’s hearing—the only one the bill will receive—to call attention to the problems with the recently-drafted legislation and sway Republican lawmakers who remain on the fence.
“We believe this is going to be a big boost to trying to find those votes we need to beat this,” he said.
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.