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Health Care Repeal Fallout: On the Front Lines of the Campaign for Universal Health Care

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey is symbolic of much of what’s wrong with Congress today. In a sign of just how out of touch the institution has become with the people, he refuses to even meet with constituents who are angry about his and the legislature’s effort to take away health care from millions of Americans. He won’t hold town halls either, preferring to avoid the unpleasantries associated with publicly stripping health insurance from the disadvantaged and needy, via the scaling back of Medicaid and the removal of subsidies for purchasing health insurance on ACA exchanges. This effort to repeal the ACA is pursued, at a time when members of the U.S. Congress receive a 72 percent premium subsidy for their own federally-funded health insurance, and are also eligible for pre-tax “flex” health savings account (HAS) plans for additional health care costs. The hypocrisy is hard to miss, with members of Congress, most of whom are millionaires, receiving federal subsidies to purchase insurance, while seeking to eliminate such aid to millions of Americans.

Enter the mass protests against repealing the ACA. This citizen uprising has been gaining steam for months, and Republican members of Congress are feeling the pressure from members of their own party, in addition to progressive activists. I’ve been involved with protests of the attempted ACA repeal in my home state of Pennsylvania throughout the year, and have had the privilege to watch this movement grow and mature into something that transcends partisan politics. Those active in the anti-repeal effort seek to move beyond simply opposing neoliberal efforts to strip away important social welfare benefits. And on Saturday, July 8th, I attended a rally at Senator Pat Toomey’s Allentown office, alongside a few hundred other demonstrators, aimed at spotlighting the Senator’s role in authoring the ACA repeal legislation, while also protesting his consistent refusal to meet with constituents.

One of the main criticisms of such protests is that they’re “futile.” Toomey refuses to meet with his critics or hold any town halls. So aren’t attempts to pressure him pointless? Those of us protesting are aware of Toomey’s intransigence, but our public presence at his office (located alongside a very heavily traffic public road) was not meant for the Senator; rather, it was an effort to show our fellow community members that citizens will not take lying down any effort to take away life saving health care. If Toomey will not listen to the public, then the objective of protests becomes building a critical public consciousness so that offenders like Toomey can be removed come the next round of elections, in favor of a candidate with a humane stance on health care policy. Protests in front of his office accomplish the important symbolic function of demonstrating public anger with Toomey’s policies. Coupled with community outreach efforts, these protests can help build a mass tide of public resistance against Republicans’ reactionary health care policies.

I was impressed with this demonstration, not only in terms of the turnout, but in terms of the energy and critical insights expressed by participants. This was not a Democratic lovefest, set on romanticizing the Affordable Care Act and simply denigrating the Republican Party, to the benefit of neoliberal Democrats. It was widely recognized by those protesting that the ACA is heavily flawed and is not a long-term solution to the problem of unaffordable, inaccessible care in the U.S. The protesters involved widely support universal health care, and are committed to the belief that health care is a human right, not a privilege, as was made abundantly clear by protest placards, conversations among demonstrators, and by the speakers and organizers involved in the rally.

Furthermore, the broader economic theme of inequality in an era of growing plutocracy was widely embraced at the rally. Those protesting the ACA repeal are not merely concerned about certain individuals losing benefits, but with the broader ramifications of granting yet another round of tax cuts to the wealthy, while robbing citizens of their health insurance and care. These policies are not the sort that we wish to be associated with. We refuse to support a government that uses tax dollars to empower the rich, while assaulting the poor. In a demonstration of the growing public concern with plutocracy, demonstrators emphasized the growing class war in American politics and society, as seen in the following chants and placards: “Medicaid, not Millionaires”; “No Tax Cuts for the Wealthy, Trickle Down Does Not Work”; “The Only Minority Destroying America is the Rich”; “Health Care, Not Wealth Care”; and “Trumpcare Kills the Poor to Pay the Rich”; “Health Care, Not Tax Cuts.”

To push for a dramatic reduction in inequality, we need to implement universal health care, and to do so we must unite numerous demographic and social groups. Despite much of the denigration of “identity politics” as of late on the American left and right, the recognition of oppression across multiple racial and social groups (referred to in higher education a “intersectionality”) is necessary to build a mass movement for change. The rally against Toomey was symbolic of this broader coming together of different demographic groups in pursuit of progressive transformation. The rally benefitted from organization by, and the participation of various activist groups, including a labor contingent represented by the SEIU, feminist concerns, as represented by Planned Parenthood and Women’s March Pennsylvania (a feminist group built out of the January anti-Trump protests), a minority voice, as articulated by “Make the Road Pennsylvania” (an immigrants rights group based in Reading, PA), and a broad-based community organization presence via “Power Northeast” (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild), which is “organizing to interrupt oppressive and inequitable systems that have historically negatively impacted Black, Latino/a, working class, and poor communities in the Lehigh Valley. Faith-based but not faith exclusive, we believe that we are one people and that if one suffers, we all suffer.”

The strength of these protests is not that they are “anti-Trump,” which would admittedly represent a limited, reactionary agenda. Instead, protests of Republican ACA repeal efforts are defined by a proactive push toward building a positive future. This movement seeks to build links between traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups, including women, people of color, immigrants, and the poor in favor of a taxpayer-funded, universal health care system. For socialized medicine to become a reality, such protests must push forward across the country, and activist groups must engage in the necessary public and community outreach to build a public groundswell of support for eliminating the private-profit based health care system that is currently in place.

In a sign of the success of local protest campaigns, it’s looking like Republicans are increasingly struggling to cultivate the necessary votes to repeal the ACA. Partisan opposition has emerged among various Republican Governors such as John Kasich of Ohio and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who fear the political fallout of cutting Medicaid services, and who seek to avoid unpopular state-level tax increases to make up the difference to pay for these services following dramatic cuts in federal funding. Opposition has also increased among Congressional Republicans who fear they will lose votes from angry constituents following the elimination of Medicaid benefits and access to federal subsidies for purchasing insurance under the state health care exchanges. The New York Times reports that support for repealing the ACA appears to be crumbling. Republican Congressional leaders are now facing “eroding enthusiasm” for repealing the ACA from their own rank-and-file: “The original Republican opposition to the repeal bill was led mainly by senators from states that have expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act, providing coverage to millions of people who had been uninsured. Now senators from largely rural states, where hospitals stand to lose millions of dollars under the bill, are expressing concerns.”

Declining Congressional support for the elimination of government funding for health insurance toward tens of millions of Americans should not be downplayed. It demonstrates the power of grassroots political protest against Washington’s plutocratic policies. While the outcome of the attempted ACA repeal is still uncertain, it’s looking like Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to get any effective repeal package through Congress if current trends continue. And if such a reform is rammed through, the party will likely feel the sting as the public mobilizes against Republican policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the needy, sick, and poor. Americans are rising up to say “no” to health and tax policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the many. Greater vigilance is needed moving forward to build the bottom-up pressure needed to achieve universal health care. Still, we should be encouraged by the fact that citizens are not only talking about opposing reactionary health care reforms, but about building a positive future in which all Americans receive health care. It’s easy to fall into defeatist efforts to protect what little is left of the American welfare state during times when vital programs are under assault. Building support for positive change is a far more difficult, but worthy goal.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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