By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
With Congress racing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, dozens of Missoula residents rallied at the Missoula Public Library on Sunday as part of a national call to action to defend Obamacare.
Some of the nearly 70 people from across western Montana came to listen. Others brought stories of family members and friends who depend upon Obamacare for treatment.
Others, including Bill Geer and many of Sunday’s speakers, urged attendees to muster supporters, call their congressman, and hit the streets to defend the nation’s embattled health insurance system.
“We can’t afford to let 20 million people nationwide – and 61,000 just on Medicaid expansion in Montana alone – go without insurance,” said Geer. “We don’t want substantive cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that leave millions of people without health care. Don’t repeal and replace without a good or better alternative.”
President-elect Donald Trump has named repealing Obamacare as one of his top priorities, and Congress has already taken action to realize that goal. The U.S. Senate last week voted 51-48 along party lines to dismantle the landmark health care law.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, voted for the measure while Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, opposed it. Congressional Republicans have said they plan to replace the ACA, though that could take years and details on a replacement plan remain scarce.
“This situation we’re in feels pretty dire – it feels like the ball is rolling downhill really fast,” said Sarah Howell with Montana Women Vote. “Over the past five years, we’ve come a long way from the dark days of 2012. But if the ACA is repealed, we’re going to turn around and shoot back into those dark days real fast. And we’re going to go much further back.”
Howell cited a recent report from the Montana Budget and Policy Center suggesting that as many as 142,000 Montanans could lose their health insurance if Congress makes good on its plans to repeal the ACA.
Opponents of a repeal also argue that Medicare would face insolvency within a few years, insurers would scale back the quality of their coverage, and women would be charged out-of-pocket expenses for contraception and mammograms.
Prior to Obamacare, Howell added, many Montanans went without insurance.
“They waited until they were so sick or so injured that they had to go to the emergency room,” she said. “They went without prescriptions. They went without preventative care like cancer screenings and trips to the dentist.”
But those arguments haven’t slowed efforts to repeal the act, and some ACA supporters have moved to argue the economic risks that could follow a repeal. Among them, community health centers across the state would lose 70 percent of their funding, even while they serve more than 100,000 patients, figures provided by Tester suggest.
Howell said hospitals and clinics would also face staggering costs in providing uncompensated care, just as they did prior to the ACA. That money will pass down to those with insurance, who will see their own costs increase.
“Our general state health care economy and structure is at risk,” Howell said. “If we repeal the ACA, Montana would stand to lose $698 million in federal funds in the first year alone. Those hospitals, and in particular the rural hospitals – the critical access hospitals – those are the hospitals that are first and foremost going to face financial troubles.”
Sunday’s event was one of dozens of rallies held around the country organized by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters and Our First Stand. The Missoula event was organized by Montana Progressive Democrats.
Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said a health care repeal would disproportionately hurt those who depend on Medicaid, including 8,000 American Indians. Others could be stuck in no man’s land, making too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to be eligible for marketplace subsidies to help pay for insurance.
“Roughly 7,400 people in Missoula County are covered under Medicaid,” said Morigeau. “It will affect all of their families and all of their friends. There are many people who will have to take in family members to take care of them. The ripple effects of this will be felt all across Montana, every county and reservation.”
Kim Phillips, a registered nurse from Hamilton, made the drive to Missoula to participate in the event. As a reviewer of medical charts, she sees the need every day for subsidized care.
“I see that a lot of people have been helped by the exchanges, and I think it’s vitally important there’s some safety net in place,” she said. “I went to Sen. Daines’ website, and I see on there he’s collecting stories about people who had Obamacare, but only ones who had their premiums go up or saw their options reduced. I think that only tells a small part of the story and it’s skewed.”
Daines’ website is seeking “your Obamacare story.”
“In 2017, Montanans are seeing their health care premiums on Obamacare jump as much as 58 percent,” his site reads. “If you are one of the many Montanans that have faced higher premiums and reduced options, share your story with me.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org