For Rep. Greg Walden, these are heady times.
The new chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee helped unveil a new federal health care plan to the nation at a news conference earlier this month. The Oregon lawmaker addressed a crowd of reporters about the proposed unraveling of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Walden didn’t mince words in describing the GOP mission.
“Facts are, we’ve arrived at the scene of a pretty big wreck and we’re trying to clean up the mess,” he said. “If we don’t intercede now, fewer people will have access to insurance — period.”
The bill rolls back Medicaid expansion, nixes the requirement for large employers to offer coverage to full-time employees and ditches a mandate that compels Americans to get insurance, instead using a system of tax credits to induce younger, healthier Americans to buy insurance on the open market. Medicaid funding would come in the form of block grants.
Walden points to double-digit insurance increases and the shrinking list of insurers on the open market as reasons for why the ACA needs to be scrapped.
“Last year, 225 counties in America had one option left to choose from on the exchange,” Walden said. “This year, it’s 1,022 and that’s before Humana pulled out. This insurance market is collapsing before our eyes. The CEO of Aetna said (the market is) in a death spiral. Those aren’t our words, those are his words. As I talk to insurers, they’re looking at whether they can sustain the losses they’re enduring.”
Though Walden’s political sway seems at an all-time high, some of his constituents in Oregon’s 2nd district are pushing back against the proposed dismantling of the ACA. In January, for example, a group of locals rallied in Walden’s hometown of Hood River to protest the repeal.
Those constituents say Walden isn’t listening to the people back home. Retired health care administrator Fran Finney helped organize the Hood River rally as a way to protest repeal and get a message to Walden that he wasn’t doing their bidding.
“We organized this at the last minute because we were concerned about the direction we see health care going in,” Finney said. “The word got out informally. About 80 people showed up. It was a very cold day — about 15 degrees — and we stood in the snow.”
Protesters waved signs proclaiming “Save our Health Care” and “Health Care for All Americans.” They took turns speaking into a microphone about fears of losing health benefits. Some spoke in support of a single payer plan. Finney worried aloud about the “slippery slope of potential cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.” Mostly, she is concerned about family and friends.
“People are concerned about losing their health care,” she said.
In Walden’s rambling district, which covers about two-thirds of Oregon, Medicaid enrollment surpassed 30 percent in eight of the counties. About 129,200 people in the district are covered by Medicaid expansion. The district’s uninsured rate has dropped from 17 percent to eight percent.
According to a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Walden’s district expanded Medicaid more than any other Republican district in the country.
Finney and her friends wonder about Walden’s political future because of this disconnect. Until now, the road has been smooth. Since 1998, Walden has easily won reelection 10 times running.
Could reelection in 2018 be less of a cakewalk?
“We think he could be vulnerable,” Finney said.
That’s a 180-degree turn from President Donald Trump’s analyis, who warned House Republicans Tuesday they could lose their seats if they failed to replace the ACA. The Republican bill to repeal the health care act comes before the House Budget Committee on Thursday.
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, is an Oregon lawmaker whose district geographically falls within Walden’s. Smith said he hears concerns about health care when he travels the area. Smith said Walden has to travel some rough roads in the coming months.
“Health care is a challenging issue for the Congressman and for folks in Eastern Oregon,” Smith said.
Rural Oregon has a large population of people dependent on the ACA and the Oregon Health Plan, he said. “They believe they have a right to affordable and accessible health care.” Smith called the effort “truly a balancing act to figure out how Oregonians can have access to health care without intruding into their private lives or being overly excessive.” That said, Smith likes the health care system Oregon has developed.
“Our state has been innovative in its approach to health care,” he said. “Oregon has significantly contained the cost of health care in comparison with other states.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown credited the ACA for bringing the level of insured to 95 percent of adults and 98 percent of children in the state.
“We know the ACA works in Oregon,” said Brown last week to a crowd gathered outdoors at the Capitol. “It’s considered a model system around the country.”
She called the proposed federal health plan “absolutely unacceptable.” Brown cited findings from a 19-page Oregon Health Authority/Consumer and Business Services department report that estimated nearly half a million Oregonians would lose health coverage and that 42,000 jobs would disappear.
“Our report found that for every step of progress Oregon has made, this proposal will take Oregon three steps back,” Brown said. “This bill is not about improving health care. This bill is about giving tax breaks to the wealthy.”
Representative Smith is reserving judgment about potential harm to Oregon.
“I’m not ready to go there yet,” he said. “I think it’s really premature. We don’t know what Congress will do yet.”
Walden has touted the plan at town halls in his district, assuring nervous constituents that no one will be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and that adult children may remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26.
“We want to take the time to get it right — so there’s a lot of work going on,” Walden told a Boardman audience last month. “Our mission is to give Americans more choices and to bring the costs down.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-966-0810.