GOP fails to muster votes for Obamacare repeal

Police arrested protesters in a hallway outside of a hearing on a bill to reform health care. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
WASHINGTON — After a frenzied day of hearings, protests and arrests on Capitol Hill, the latest attempt to repeal Obamacare appears to be dead.

The so-called Graham-Cassidy bill was a last ditch effort by Republicans to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declared Monday evening that she would vote against the health care reform package. Collins was the third Republican to come out as a firm “no,” leaving the majority short of the 50 votes necessary to pass the bill.

Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and John McCain, R-Arizona, said last week that they would vote against the bill. A fourth Republican, Ted Cruz, of Florida, indicated over the weekend that he would not support the legislation without changes.

Collins’ announcement came at the end of a day of heated committee hearings and protests as Republican leaders in the Senate attempted to ferry the proposal through the chamber before a procedural deadline at the end of the week. After September 30, the legislation would need 60 votes to pass, rather than a simple majority.

The Graham-Cassidy proposal has been panned by Vermont leaders. State officials estimate the legislation would reduce federal Medicaid funding for Vermont by $200 million a year. Vermonters traveled to Washington to protest against the legislation.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, had momentum last week, but their proposal stalled over the weekend.

The two senators tweaked the legislation Sunday and Monday morning in an attempt to shake loose support from undecided Senate Republicans, but the effort failed to generate enough votes for passage.

With the prospects for health care reform uncertain, the Senate Finance Committee proceeded with a hearing on the bill, which had been added to the committee schedule last week.

181 arrested in protests at the Capitol

Hundreds of people lined up along the wall outside the hearing room. The line turned a corner and went down the full length of the hallway before spilling into a neighboring Senate office building.

Near the front of the line was an 18-year-old from Readsboro, Vermont.

Drew Peltier came to D.C. with a carload of Vermonters who arrived 3:30 a.m. Monday morning. By 7:30 a.m., Peltier was on Capitol Hill, waiting for the doors to open.

By mid-morning, he and his friends were camped out on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

For Peltier, health care is personal. He had a traumatic brain injury in 2011, he said. As a result, he struggles to manage debilitating chronic migraines and other conditions.

“This bill is horrible. It needs to be stopped,” Peltier said. “It’s coming down to, if this bill passes people will die.”

It was the second time Peltier has come to D.C. to protest the repeal of Obamacare. The first time he supported other protesters who were there to be arrested. This time, he planned to be arrested himself.

Peltier said he was “a little” nervous.

“I think that’s normal getting arrested for the first time,” he said.

Tensions mounted as protesters, law enforcement and reporters crowded into the hearing room. Dozens of capitol police officers stood shoulder to shoulder, attempting to contain the demonstrators along one side of the hallway.

“No cuts to Medicaid, save our liberty!” protesters chanted.

After the hearing began, officers periodically arrived with fists full of white zip tie restraints.

Protesters continued to shout as they were restrained and escorted into an elevator car. Individuals with disabilities sat or lay on the ground. Officers lifted them into wheelchairs, before placing them under arrest.

About 181 people were arrested, according to U.S. Capitol Police.

In the hearing, Graham, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, contended that Medicaid spending is unsustainable and that the legislation would give states more control over health care.

“My goal is to get the money and power out of Washington, closer to where people live so they’ll have a voice about the most important thing in their life,” Graham said.

Cassidy said concerns about the legislation had been blown out of proportion and many aspects of Obamacare would be left in place.

CBO says millions of people would lose insurance

Later in the day, the Congressional Budget Office released a finding that the proposal would decrease the national deficit.

The CBO estimated that the model would reduce the deficit by “at least $133 billion.”

Graham-Cassidy would also throw millions of people off insurance rolls. “That number could vary widely depending on how states implemented the legislation, although the direction of the effect is clear,” the analysis states.

The legislation, which is opposed by Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont’s congressional delegation, was roundly condemned by a broad coalition of major health care companies and associations late last week.

In a joint statement, more than a dozen Vermont health care organizations said the bill would be a “major setback for health care in our country.”

Cuts to Medicaid would “put Vermont’s payment and delivery system reform efforts in jeopardy,” they said.

“The Graham-Cassidy-Heller Johnson bill will increase the number of uninsured Vermonters and harm Vermont’s health care system and economy,” the organizations said in a statement.

The coalition represents 13 health care groups and companies in Vermont, including the state’s two largest health insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont & MVP Health Care, the UVM Medical Center, the Vermont Legal Aid Office of the Health Care Advocate and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Projections suggest the Graham-Cassidy proposal would reduce Vermont’s Medicaid program by $200 million annually, according to Vermont Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille.

“This is not something that you could just move some stuff around and absorb the impact of,” Gobeille said. “It would mean services would have to be cut.”

Now that the bill appears to be dead, Gobeille said he hopes Congress will collaborate to resolve problems with the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s time for people to work together,” Gobeille said.

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