CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nineteen organizations joined together Sunday for a rally urging U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to vote against the Senate health care bill.
Multiple speakers spoke at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium about the benefits of former President Barack Obama’s health care law, but also acknowledged the risks of the plan Republicans senators released last week. Speakers included leaders of local, state and regional organizations, and also one of Capito’s colleagues: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The event had been in the works for “over a month,” according to West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition director Stephen Smith. However, after the Senate health care plan was unveiled, they were contacted by MoveOn.org about being part of Sanders’ national tour.
“People saw that something was happening in West Virginia,” Smith said Sunday prior to the event. “People are coming from all different walks of life.”
The GOP plan — the Better Care Reconciliation Act — includes phasing out Medicaid expansion starting in 2021, higher premiums for older people under 65 years old and lifting required coverage for “essential health benefits,” including maternity care.
More than 170,000 West Virginians gained coverage following the Medicaid expansion.
The bill would retain parts of “Obamacare,” such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing people to stay on their parents’ coverage until the age of 26. It also includes $2 billion to fund grants for opioid addiction treatment.
Capito said in a statement last week she is reviewing the legislation draft. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has come out against the proposal.
Sammi Brown, who works with event co-organizer Our Children, Our Future, said West Virginia’s progress made through Medicaid expansion would backtrack if the Senate health care plan was enacted.
“Hundreds of thousands of individuals would lose health care, and that simply can’t happen,” she said. “We’re already having to struggle with having folks employed and having to make the decision between medicine, water and paying their bills that day.”
While Sanders’ visit in February attracted more people — more than 2,000 compared to around half that number Sunday — the audience was just as vocal and upset about changes in Washington as the previous one.
“Who here has or has a family member that has a pre-existing condition?” asked Emily Thompson, field organizer for Planned Parenthood of South Atlantic.
Most of the attendees raised their hands.
“Who here believes health care is a human right?” Thompson asked.
Everyone raised their hands, with an eruption of applause following.
“Who here is ready to fight for that right?” Thompson continued as the clapping grew louder.
“What West Virginia has been doing since (President Donald) Trump’s election has been extraordinary,” she said. “We have community groups organizing rallies all across the state every week. We host town halls and roundtables, and even though most of the time they have empty chairs on the stage, we aren’t giving up.”
West Virginia AFL-CIO president Josh Sword said it was powerful seeing the number of people and groups united on a common issue.
“A lot of groups are understanding and buying into what’s going on and the negative impact of the health care bill they are talking about in Congress,” Sword said. “At the end of the day, Sen. Capito may be the swing vote in all this.”
Jeanne Peters of Wood County Indivisible said her group began weeks after Trump’s inauguration. She spoke about how the organization ended up involved in health care advocacy.
“At our first meeting, a woman named Julie Schleier appeared,” Peters recalled. “She asked me, ‘Are we going to work for health care in this group?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.'”
Peters talked about how Schleier tripped over a rug, breaking a back. Schleier was later diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease.
“Julie now lives with a crippling, painful, deadly disease,” Peters said. “She would not be alive today if (the Affordable Care Act) didn’t provide her with the medications she otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.”
Sanders — the independent senator who won West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary in May 2016 — said “Obamacare” was not the solution regarding health care issues, citing the number of uninsured and high deductibles.
“This bill will make a bad situation much, much worse by throwing 23 million Americans off of health insurance, which would bring the total of uninsured in this country to over 50 million people,” Sanders said, referencing the Congressional; Budget Office’s May report on the House of Representatives’ health care plan.
The CBO said it will try to release a report on the Senate plan at the beginning of this week.
Sanders also said the function of health care companies should be to provide affordable coverage, not make profits.
“We’ve got to beat back this disastrous Republican proposal, we’ve got to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, but in the future,” Sanders said, “our job is to join every other major country in guaranteeing health care to all.”
West Virginia State Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, was one of the attendees of the event. He said Trump and congressional Republicans are not standing up for the working class.
“Here’s a man that came down here and said he was going to do all these great things, and then pushes legislation like that that is just going to destroy our area,” Ojeda said.
Sanders also addressed the opioid crisis, an issue Vermont and West Virginia are both addressing. Sanders said the grant program in the Senate GOP plan would not be enough to fully address the issue.
“Clearly, what we have got to do as a nation is to come up with a comprehensive plan to treat people that have addiction (and) to prevent others from becoming addicted,” he said. “Not to throw 23 million people off of health insurance.”
Peters said Congress should work together on a solution for health care rather than replacing the current system.
“It’s unfair to punish people who currently have great coverage through Medicaid expansion who previously had no coverage,” she added.
Sanders said he expects the Senate to vote on the measure on Thursday. Both congressional chambers will adjourn from their sessions Friday for one week because of the Fourth of July holiday.