Congressman Comer Defends GOP Healthcare Plan at Benton Town Hall

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 17, 2017 3:24 pm

The Republican-crafted American Health Care Act and concern over pre-existing conditions dominated U.S. Congressman James Comer's town hall in Marshall County on Wednesday afternoon. 

Comer faced dissent from a vocal crowd who appeared to largely disagree with the bill. He defended his vote favoring of the measure while explaining certain aspects with which the audience was concerned. He also said he supported President Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey. 

Pennyroyal Indivisible's "Die-In"

Prior to the town hall, close to a dozen members of the Pennyroyal Indivisible group staged a "die-in" on the lawn of the Marshall County Courthouse protesting the GOP healthcare plan. Signs read "Defunding Planned Parenthood doesn't stop abortions it just kills women," "AHCA takes health care from the poor and gives tax breaks to the rich" and tombstones naming health issues. Across the street from the demonstration was the Marshall County GOP headquarters.

Organizers Victoria Keith of Oak Grove and Megan Meyer of Trigg County said they feel the GOP plan will bump people with pre-existing conditions off of their healthcare plans and that people may no longer be covered due to being priced out of the market.

Keith said she hopes the demonstration will get the attention of Congressman Comer and people driving by. "I hope it will attract some attention and that people will think twice about what this bill means to them and what healthcare means to them and what government should be able to do for all of its people and what government should be able to do for all of its people which is provide affordable care for everyone."

Meyer criticized the bill for having a vote before an updated Congressional Budget Office score. The CBO score of the original AHCA bill found as many as 24 million people could be without health insurance over the next decade. CBO has said a new score is expected on May 22.

With regard to the MacArthur Amendment (which gives states waiver options to place those with pre-existing conditions into subsidized high-risk pools) Meyer said, "I want to know why is it that we're being punished and not the insurance companies that are overcharging people." She suggested a single-payer system cutting medical-for-profit completely and covering everyone through a simple tax with no fluctuation.

County GOP chair Danny Holt said with regards to the protest that it "goes beyond what is logical."

AUDIENCE BEFORE TOWN HALL

Many of those attending the town hall said beforehand that they wanted to know more about the AHCA and hear what Comer had to say about it.

Kathy Boer of Benton said, "I am 57 year old with a pre-existing condition. I work. I pay taxes. I always have. I want to know what this speaks to me. I'm also considering retirement in five years. So what happens in five years? How will I insure myself? I've always been insured. I've never not been insured and the rates that I hear are frightening."

Danny Holt of Benton said he supports the Congressman and said AHCA "is a whole lot better than what we have at this point. Obamacare is failing and we've got to have something that will do the job for the people and they're in the right direction with where they're going and what they're doing."

Tracey Brown of Benton said she was checking her blood sugar level prior to the town hall. She said she has type-1 diabetes, bipolar disorder, is a breast cancer survivor and as a female feels like she is "a pre-existing condition by breathing." She said without insurance she couldn't afford to eat because her medicine costs $5,000 a month. She said she feels fortunate to have family support but adds that could fade away with the bills being proposed. While she understands there are problems with ACA, she said, the new bill is not compassionate.

Brown said one vial of her insulin costs between $50 or $60. She goes on to state: "I'm very fortunate that I can understand what it is I need to do, but there are many people who don't. In the past, before I was actually officially diagnosed as a 'disabled person' I went from having a job to not and so I had to be able to pay for my cobra benefits. And so I could pay for the insurance, but I couldn't pay for any of the medicine I have. then after the COBRA benefits [continued coverage on group plans due to certain criteria], basically I wasn't able to get any more insurance. my medicine cost about $5,000 a month to try to do. So having bipolar disorder in addition and depression that went with that - I literally told my family, my family was worried 'it would be cheaper for you to bury me than pay for two months worth of medicine.' And that doesn't include doctor's benefits. Since that time I've had breast cancer. I'm a breast cancer survivor. I can't imagine all of those things - well that has happened since the ACA was approved. I can't imagine. I wouldn't be alive. I literally would not be alive."

TOWN HALL

NOTE: WKMS Live-Tweeted the actual town hall, which you can read here. The following will aim to summarize the event.

The relatively full town hall had a more vocally active audience than some of the town halls prior, however, it was not 'rowdy' like some others have been elsewhere in the country. Most of the initial conversation and subsequent Q&A centered around concerns over the healthcare bill. The event began around 4:30 and while the town hall itself was about 90 minutes, Comer spoke with individual constituents and local media until after 7 p.m.

Before the Q&A session, Comer updated his position on several issues. He said "There's never a dull moment in Washington D.C. when Trump is president," referring to his firing of FBI director James Comey. (In a moment of levity, he joked about how their names, which are one letter apart, caused some initial confusion.) Comer said he thought President Trump "did the right thing" in firing Comey, who he said was arrogant and patronizing.

With regards to investigations into alleged ties between Trump and Russia, Comer said the president is being investigated by three committees and predicts those findings will be released soon, from which further decisions or actions may be taken. (more on this below)

He also stated he doesn't support "boots on the ground" in North Korea but said their nuclear program needs to end. When asked about thoughts on Trump releasing taxes, he said "I wish he would disclose his taxes" but doubted that Trump would do that.

Other members of the audience expressed frustration over "Right-to-Work" legislation weakening unions, the legal status of marijuana and minimum wage difficulties.

HEALTHCARE

On healthcare, Comer restated many of the same things he has said at past town halls, namely the lack of private insurance options and that too many people in Kentucky are on Medicaid (he said it was designed for children, the "truly disabled," pregnant women, single parents and low-income people - not able-bodied adults). Defending the bill, he said it is focused on trying to reduce premiums on individual and group markets and stressed that the MacArthur amendment "clearly and specifically protects people with pre-existing conditions."

Comer said he didn't have an answer with regard to potentially high premiums for people who are between the ages of 60 and 65, but said he doesn't want "ridiculous" rates.

Randy Gray placed his medical pump on the table and the immune gamma globulin that goes with it and told Comer that without subsidies the medicine would cost around $680,000 a year. Gray said, "This is an emotional issue for me" and urged Comer remember people like him in D.C.

Jennifer Smith wore a sign on her back that read "Pre-Existing Condition" on her back. Frustrated over the GOP plan, she criticized Comer for being "either naive or grossly mislead by D.C. adding "I would die on AHCA." She also said that GoFundMe (a crowd source fundraising platform) was not a healthcare provider and suggested he have a meeting with cancer survivors.

Over further concerns about whether the new bill adequately covers those with pre-existing conditions, Comer said "I just disagree" and said high-risk pools "are very well funded." With regards to premiums, he said while he didn't know if they'd go down, "if they stabilize that would be good."

When asked if he was a "constituent man" or a "party man" (which he has been asked before) in reference to the number of people with pre-existing conditions in Kentucky's 1st District, Comer said in speaking with people and businesses many have cited high healthcare costs due to the ACA.

(more on healthcare below)

AFTER TOWN HALL

Randy Gray, who brought his expensive medication to Comer's attention said he fears that without the ACA a cap on the amount his insurance company would spend might be reinstated (according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the current law prohibits health plans from putting limits on most benefits). If his cap was limited to $1 million dollars, he would reach that very quickly with his very expensive medicine. Gray said he uses a pump once a week with four needles in the stomach. He is on health insurance through his retirement, a guarantee he said he spent 25 years working and earning. He pays out of pocket around $3,000 each year, but a cap would be catastrophic. "I don't want to be selfish in the fact that, this is about me right here, but we've got to think about this whole country. Everybody in this country," he said.

Former Democratic State Representative J.R. Gray (related to Randy Gray) said during the town hall that Trump was a "pathelogical liar... with no respect for women." Asked about this afterwards, he suggested a house cleaning in D.C. starting with the president. "If Hillary Clinton had gotten elected president and pulled off half the stuff that Trump has pulled off, Mitch McConnell would be jumping up and down and hollering 'impeachment, impeachment, impeachment," he said.

Gray said he is frustrated that the United States spends so much on healthcare and yet falls behind in service. "It's a shame because there should be no man, woman or child that goes without decent shelter, good healthcare and nutritious meals with all the resources we've got. And if we take some of them away from these fat-cat rich ones there'd be enough to go around out there. If they'd just eliminate some of those tax breaks they've given the rich already there'd be enough money to go around to furnish excellent healthcare for everyone. But I guess it will never happen in my lifetime."

Marshall Co. GOP Chair Danny Holt said afterwards, "It takes a lot of guts for a man to stand up and be treated the way he was by some of the people." He criticized people in the audience "spewing out fake news" citing misconceptions about pre-existing conditions.

"This man I've known for several years and I know that he will be honest with people and he tell them the way it is whether they like it or not and that's why 72 percent of the people voted for him. This was not representative of the people that voted for him. This was a rogue element that was trying to do things to trip him up and make him look bad," Holt said.

Holt said he wanted to hear more about creating an environment for new and better jobs and felt there wasn't an opportunity to talk about that (more on this below). On the idea of a bipartisan bridge, Holt said he was hopeful in 2008, but said after eight years of President Obama's administration he doesn't see any kind of bridge any time soon.

FOLLOW-UP WITH CONGRESSMAN COMER

Following-up with Congressman Comer, he said of the town hall that he was moved by Randy Gray's story and the issue with potential caps on people who have 'very serious pre-existing conditions.' He also felt that many people come to town halls with their minds already made up and who are very anti-Trump.

Speaking with WKMS, Comer followed-up on a variety of topics:

He said with regard to Trump-Russia investigations, "I have confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee." He also mentioned investigations by the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee. He said he wants to see what these committees come up with and if the results are not satisfying then he may support possible further action.

Referencing Republican Howard Baker's famous line during the Nixon Watergate scandal ("What did the president know, and when did he know it?"), he said "There are so many ambitious Republicans in Washington that if Trump did something bad they would want to be the one to say that to go down in history. So I'm confident the truth will come out and then we can hopefully move forward as a country."

On the firing of FBI director James Comey, he said, "I believe that the president did the right thing in firing James Comey. It was clear that he had lost the confidence of both Democrats and Republicans. Not only the way he handled the election on both sides." He said Comey 'botched it' with both Republicans and Democrats. "There was a complete lack of confidence by every member of Congress in his ability to move that agency forward."

The note in the letter from Trump to Comey about not being investigated: "Sometimes it's hard to explain why the president puts things in writing either in a letter or in a tweet. That is odd and I know some of my colleagues on the Republican side have expressed concern about that. I'm sure that's something that's going to be investigated by the committees that are investigating the president."

Following-up on healthcare concerns, Comer said "People are scared and they should be. Healthcare is very important to all of us and whether you support Obamacare or you support Trumpcare or you don't support either, something has to be done." He said people have approached him saying that their current healthcare is too high to which he has replied "Well that's with Obamacare. You've still got Obamacare. We haven't even changed it yet." He said a majority of Americans are paying too much and feels premiums will skyrocket if nothing is done about it. He added that the AHCA plan still has a long way to go and will have changes.

On whether there is enough coverage in high-risk pools, he said the Fred Upton and Billy Long Amendment adds another eight billion dollars of additional funding on top of what's already in the bill for high-risk pools (CNN and other media outlets report that pool is $138 billion). "There's a substantial amount of money," Comer said. He added that the issue is "being spun by both sides."

There's no guarantee health providers will come back to Kentucky, he said, but feels the bill would fix the problems insurance companies say they have while also helping those with pre-existing conditions. "I think there's a lot of thought that's been put in this bill. More than you would think listening to the news media or at these town halls because this has been the primary issue that's been discussed and debated and negotiated on the entire time that I've been in congress, which has been about five and half months."

On the issue of trade and jobs, with regard to Trump's comments about Canada's soft lumber and dairy exports, Comer said the president is "trying to make a point" in revisiting NAFTA. Comer said bi-lateral agreements will need to put all industies on a level playing field.

While Canada and Mexico are great trade partners for agricultural products, he said, there's an issue with steel and aluminum from China and Russia being 'dumped' on the open market. "We can renegotiate and reexamine our trade agreements and try to focus on putting American workers and American companies on a level playing field and I have confidence that the president can do that. That area is where he has a superior reputation and a superior record of accomplishment."

On coal jobs, he cited a new mine coming online in nearby McLean County, "We're seeing coal come back a little bit in west Kentucky. It'll probably never be what it was but I think the future's bright for coal in west Kentucky. Now east Kentucky that's a whole different ballgame."

He also said he supports nuclear, solar and wind and said the United States needs a diversified energy portfolio - one that includes coal.

Comer's next town hall is in Clinton County.

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