Dozens of health care advocates gathered in Burlington Wednesday to call on Vermonters and their elected officials to take action against Senate Republicans' plan to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and pay for tax cuts on wealthy Americans and corporations with cuts to Medicaid.
"This [bill] is corrupt, this is unjust, this is immoral, it is inhumane, and it is not what Vermont stands for, which is why we are all here today," said Jessica Early, a registered nurse who serves as a healthcare organizer for Rights and Democracy Vermont.
Audio for this story will be posted.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that 22 million Americans would lose their health insurance coverage over a 10-year period if the bill is passed into law. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont CEO Don George says more than 20,000 Vermonters get their health insurance coverage with the help of subsidies provided under the Affordable Care Act, and those subsidies could go away under the Senate bill.
In Burlington Wednesday, though, Early said statistics aren't going to defeat the GOP bill by themselves.
"I know as a nurse that I can tell you lots of stats but the most powerful thing is always patients' stories," Early said.
Early introduced Katie McCurdy, who told the story of how her health insurance covers a regular treatment that alleviates the symptoms of her medical conditions.
"The first is called Myasthenia Gravis, which causes muscle weakness in my whole body. It especially impacts my ability to smile and make facial expressions. Sometimes it causes double-vision as well," she said. "I've also been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, which causes dry eyes, muscle aches, neuropathy — which is numbness and tingling in your extremities — I have heart palpitations and other symptoms too."
McCurdy said those conditions made it difficult for her to socialize and succeed at work, but she found a treatment that works for her.
"So I met with my doctor and we talked about options and the best option to get me strong fast is called IVIG, which is intravenous immunoglobulin, and this is an IV infusion of pooled donor plasma that can temporarily strengthen your immune system," she said. "And the cost of this treatment at our hospital is over $30,000 for a four-day infusion."
With the help of her husband's insurance, McCurdy said she's been able to get the treatment and feel better, but she said she worries that Washington politics could take that away.
"The threat of being denied coverage based on a preexisting condition is real for me ... and I'm old enough to remember those days where I could not have a gap in my coverage, otherwise an insurance company could choose not to cover me, and if I weren't covered I would not be able to continue these treatments that have been so life-changing for me," she said.
The Affordable Card Act made it illegal for insurance companies to deny someone medical coverage for a "preexisting condition," so a repeal of that law could mean treatments for people like McCurdy aren't covered by health insurance.
Another major focus of the Burlington rally was Medicaid funding. The Senate bill would cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations and pay for that by reducing Medicaid funding.
Kimberly Colville, a peer advocate counselor at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said those cuts could have a devastating effect on people with disabilities who are living independently in their communities with help from Medicaid-funded programs.
"To say that they are scared for their lives is an understatement," she said. "Losing an individual's ability to work, to attend school and to be fully included in our community would not only affect them, but would have negative consequences for our society as a whole."
Proponents of the bill in Washington say the changes to Medicaid will give more flexibility to states to decide how they administer the program. Ed Paquin, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, said that increased flexibility comes with reduced federal support.
"The state is either going to have to make, quote, 'difficult choices' or come up with the tax funds," he said. "Well how have you seen the taxes go in the state of Vermont? Are people talking about untapped tax potential in Vermont? No. The state politics have been for years that taxes cannot go up any more, so we're not going to see that capacity. So what's the choice after that? Well, the choice you're going to make is to take off people who have been recently insured, so the low-income working people are probably going to be the first to go."
Paquin warned that in addition to people losing coverage entirely, cost cutting efforts could require the state to scale back coverage for services that are considered "optional" under federal law such as mental health care and opioid prevention efforts.
Advocates called on Vermonters to contact people they know in other states and encourage them to call their Senators to voice opposition to the bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders sent representatives to the Burlington protest, which was organized by Rights and Democracy Vermont, and both senators already voiced strong opposition to the bill.
At the state level, the Vermont Workers Center is taking a different approach. Kate Kanelstein, the executive director of the Vermont Workers Center, said the group is trying to revive Act 48. That's the state law signed in 2011 by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin that put Vermont on a path to a publicly financed universal health care system.
Kanelstein says the Republican majority in Congress has put health care reform efforts on the defensive in Washington.
"What we need to do right now is pick a battle that we can win, and go on the offensive on a fight that is winnable," she said, "and that means fighting for the implementation of Act 48, Vermont's universal health care law, right here in Vermont now, and lead the way for the country."
Politically, it's an uphill battle to convince affordability-focused Republican Gov. Phil Scott (who also opposes the Republican bill) to implement a health care plan that Shumlin — it's biggest advocate — said would be too much of a financial burden on the state. But with far more conservative Republicans in control in Washington, Kanelstein sees it as a solution that could prevent the harm that would come to Vermonters if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.