By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With all eyes on U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as she reviews the latest draft of the GOP-backed Affordable Care Act replacement, a coalition of health care groups held a news conference Thursday to urge her to hold her position in opposing the bill.
A host of speakers at Charleston Area Medical Center’s Cancer Center offered research, projections and personal anecdotes detailing how the bill would harm West Virginians at the Thursday morning conference, just hours before Senate leadership released the newest tweaks to the Better Care Reconciliation Act.
Thursday’s changes include reintroducing taxes on the wealthy, Sen. Ted Cruz’s idea of allowing insurance providers to offer plans that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act so long as they also offer plans that do, and adding $45 billion in funding to combat the opioid crisis.
Capito came out against the original version of the bill citing deep cuts to Medicaid and insufficient funding to handle the opioid crisis. In a later interview, she said she also opposed Cruz’s proposal.
Given the new bill does not substantially alter what the Congressional Budget Office estimated to be $772 billion in cuts to Medicaid, contains both the Cruz-backed language and the opioid funding, Capito’s vote could be both up-in-the-air and pivotal, given the Republican party’s two-seat Senate majority.
In a statement from her press office, Capito said she is still reviewing the legislation.
“Any health care bill to replace Obamacare must provide access to affordable health care coverage for West Virginians, including our large Medicaid population and those struggling with drug addiction,” she said. “I opposed the previous draft because it did not ensure access to affordable health care in West Virginia, did not do enough to combat the opioid epidemic that is devastating my state, cut Medicaid too deeply, and harmed rural health care providers. I look forward to reviewing the revised Senate health care legislation and forthcoming CBO report to determine the impact on West Virginians, but continue to have serious concerns about the Medicaid provisions.”
Meanwhile, in Charleston, speakers from groups such as the AARP, the American Hospital Association and the American Cancer Society spoke out against the bill and urged Capito, despite enormous political pressure, to vote against it.
State Health Officer and Commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health, Dr. Rahul Gupta, said the bill will not solve the underlying problem of skyrocketing health care costs, and will only lower insurance costs by removing people from coverage.
“What it will basically do is either shift costs or throw those people in an arena that they will not know how to get charity care, and they will be at the mercy of charity care systems, which we actually have worked to wind down in a lot of ways since the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We’ve been working a different direction and this is actually going to take us in a 180 degree turn.”
He pointed out that of the roughly 170,000 West Virginians covered under the Medicaid expansion from the ACA, 50,000 of them have a substance abuse disorder.
“We’re not only talking about bringing insurance costs down, we’re talking about bringing insurance costs down by getting people off the rolls,” he said. “What’s costing America is not that there’s too many people on insurance, that’s not the reason. The reason is the cost of insurance and cost of health care is too expensive. This impacts nothing on that end.”
He said while everyone should get behind finding a solution to reduce the costs of health care, this bill is not the answer, and whatever policy choice is made, it should be done thinking about patients first in a careful, deliberate manner.
Likewise, Toni DiChiacchio, president of the West Virginia Nurses Association and a former nurse practitioner, said expanding Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level was paramount for the health of West Virginians, and rolling it back could be devastating.
“As West Virginians, the expansion has been incredible,” she said. “We are the most successful in the nation with getting people covered, and we fear what will happen with those people should these [bills] pass. We’re not really hearing about options for this group of people other than high-risk pools, which traditionally have not worked well. We also have, as was mentioned here, this significant opiate problem, and that is not just a singular, as Dr. Gupta says, issue. There are physical and mental issues that go along with that. Without insurance to help pay for those services that those folks need, we’ll never have a healthy West Virginia.”
Along with the medical professionals, Lora Wilkerson spoke at the conference about her granddaughter, Elinor. The child was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer, when she was 18 months old.
Elinor is 3 years old now and cancer-free after 43 rounds of chemotherapy and six rounds of radiation. However, Wilkerson said she still has a long road ahead of her in physical, occupational and speech therapy given the damage the cancer did to Elinor.
Wilkerson said she’s worried what would happen to her granddaughter if insurance providers can up-charge people with pre-existing conditions or impose lifetime caps on coverage, practices that were outlawed under the ACA.
She said she just hopes Capito and other senators are thinking about who will feel the effects of the bill.
“Please stop and think about our West Virginians, children, the elderly, your family members, neighbors and coworkers, stop and think about them and do what’s right for them,” she said. “Let’s create something better, not throw everyone off. Work on something, let’s fix it — don’t get rid of it.”
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