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Protesters oppose GOP health care bill, call on Toomey to hold town hall

Wesley Venteicher
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Dr. Deborah Gilboa speaks during an open-air town hall to speak out against healthcare repeal at Market Square on July 6, 2017.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburghers hold an open-air town hall to speak out against healthcare repeal at Market Square on July 6, 2017.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Libby Powers speaks during an open-air town hall to speak out against healthcare repeal at Market Square on July 6, 2017.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Lauren Guzowski, 15, and Michaela Snider, 18, of South Fayette hold signs during an open-air town hall to speak out against healthcare repeal at Market Square on July 6, 2017.

People opposing a Senate health reform bill chanted “town hall now” during a rally Thursday in Pittsburgh’s Market Square and called on U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey to meet with them to discuss how the bill might affect them.

A spokesman for Toomey, who did not attend Thursday’s rally, said in an email that the Lehigh Valley Republican this year has hosted two telephone town halls, two social media forums and invited protesters in Washington, D.C., to a meeting in his Senate office.

But organizers behind Thursday’s event said those interactions aren’t good enough. Neither was an alternative type of meeting that Toomey held Wednesday, in which four TV stations picked local audiences who could ask the senator questions by camera, the organizers argued.

The format limited access to the senator and didn’t afford the possibility of dialogue, said Sally Jo Snyder, director of advocacy and consumer engagement for the Pittsburgh-based Consumer Health Coalition.

Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, organized what they called “open-air town halls” in Pittsburgh and six other cities Thursday to criticize elected Republicans such as Toomey for not holding traditional town hall meetings on the health care plan released two weeks ago.

Titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Senate GOP plan would reduce premium subsidies, weaken consumer protections and scale back and restructure Medicaid while getting rid of the Affordable Care Act’s taxes and penalties for not having insurance. If the proposal passes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 22 million fewer people would have insurance, including those who would choose not to buy it without the existing mandate to do so.

At the Pittsburgh rally, Mara Kaplan, 53, of Highland Park said her 24-year-old son Samuel relies on Medicaid for continued treatment of disabilities related to his microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with heads that are smaller than normal.

Kaplan said her son would likely still be covered even if the Senate GOP plan goes through, but she said state legislators would be forced to make a choice between covering people like her son and others who benefit from Medicaid — including people living in nursing homes whose savings run out — to keep costs in check.

“The more money (her son) spends, the less money can go to someone else,” she said.

The Senate GOP bill would reduce the share of medical bills that the federal government pays for people who qualify for Medicaid through state expansions of the program authorized under the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Tom Wolf implemented the expansion in Pennsylvania, and people who make up to about $16,000 a year are eligible.

About 730,000 Pennsylvanians have enrolled under the expansion. Before that, adults had to be disabled or make far less money to qualify.

The Senate GOP proposal could reduce federal funding for the program in Pennsylvania by about $3 billion per year, Wolf administration officials have said.

The federal government agreed to pay 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs through 2016, 95 percent starting this year and 90 percent by 2020.

Toomey has said the federal government should pay the same percentage of treatment costs for the expansion population as it has paid for people enrolled in traditional Medicaid — about 52 percent. The Senate bill scales the federal contribution for the expansion population down to 52 percent over several years.

Nikki Kemp, 35, of Lawrenceville said she was able to buy an individual health insurance plan using the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace Wednesday after losing access to employer-based insurance. Kemp said many people in the service industry depend on the individual marketplace for insurance.

She fears many would lose access to affordable insurance under the GOP bill’s changes to the individual marketplace, including changes to subsidies that would likely make higher-deductible plans more common and would increase premiums for Americans approaching 65 years old.

Kemp said she participated in one of Toomey’s social media conversations, but that her question wasn’t answered.

“I just think he needs to hear from his constituents, from all the people who are here today,” she said.

Speakers at the protest also included Terry Peters, 55, of Squirrel Hill who said her husband’s insurer had denied claims the second time he got cancer and a self-employed musician who said the Affordable Care Act enabled him to pay for insurance that covered treatment for several pre-existing conditions. Each said they feared that proposed changes would allow insurance companies to deny people coverage based on their medical condition or charge sick people more for coverage.

The Senate proposal would leave it up to states to request waivers from the federal government to relax rules about the conditions insurers must cover.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, [email protected] or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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