Washington, DC—After the GOP’s latest failure to muster enough votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a national network of “birddoggers” celebrated the preservation of access to healthcare for more than 30 million Americans. The network of patients, health workers, faith leaders and people with disabilities span 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and is supported by Housing Works, and the Center for Popular Democracy. Since the beginning of the year, independent groups from more than 60 cities have linked up to save health care, prioritizing making demands of elected officials in-person, and has been willing to escalate until the job is done. These thousands of birddoggers packed townhalls, held thousands of lobby meetings, and, by the July 4th Recess, began a series of rapidly escalating occupations of Senate offices, including a single day takeover of 49 Senate Republican offices on July 19 who had yet to oppose ACA repeal, a disruption of the Senate’s motion to proceed vote, and, finally, a massive crowd that temporarily seized control of the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on the Graham-Cassidy repeal bill.
The activists are pivoting now to advance a bipartisan package of immediate fixes, similar to those debated during this month's hearings in the Senate HELP Committee. Birdoggers are pushing hard for rapid action to stabilize marketplaces, bring down insurance rates, and continue Medicaid expansion, on the road towards universal healthcare. “Shameful efforts to take from the sick to give to the rich have unleashed an unstoppable force in America,” said Jaron Benjamin from Housing Works in New York. “We came from every corner of the country to stop them, taking over their offices, stopping their votes, and disrupting their sham hearings. We won’t stop until everyone in this country has affordable, high-quality healthcare.”
The bill’s final demise took place at Monday’s hastily organized Senate committee hearing, which was disrupted by throngs of protesters whose numbers approached 1,000. At the very front of the line, having waited since dawn, were hundreds of disabled individuals from ADAPT and hundreds more from the birddogger network. Fewer than 20 people from the general public were allowed into the Senate hearing room. Even so, the hearing was interrupted from the outset by the small group that did manage to get in, “No cuts to Medicaid. Save our liberty!” This chant immediately triggered simultaneous protests by the masses locked outside the hearing room. Their chants of “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” rocked the entire building, and it took more than three hours to arrest and remove all of them. Collectively, Monday’s protests resulted in 181 arrests.
With the bill’s failure, Republicans have lost their last best chance to repeal ACA, marking the end of an immediate threat to the health law, and dealing yet another blow to the Trump Administration’s agenda. Tuesday’s victory is the latest in a series of healthcare activist wins to protect ACA. The GOP has attempted to ram through various versions of TrumpCare since early spring, but has failed in the face of steep opposition from constituents in every state. With this win, the activists are now pushing hard for Congress to quickly pass a package of bipartisan fixes to the ACA, urging members of the Senate HELP Committee to introduce a bill in the coming week, as well as supporting renewed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and community health centers--vital programs which expire soon.
“This has been another amazing and sweet victory for people power,” said Housing Works CEO and co-founder Charles King. “By working together, we have sent a clear message that ACA repeal is a matter of life or death for the tens of millions of Americans who would lose coverage, especially for those with pre-existing conditions like HIV. We have put our bodies on the line again and again to show that playing cruel partisan politics with people’s lives will not stand. This latest victory is a major win, and now we’re going to go on the offensive to quickly get a bill to stop the sabotage and correct the flaws in the ACA. We will keep at it to protect and improve affordable care in the U.S. until everyone has the healthcare they need.”
Participation in this kind of campaign was a first for most of the hundreds of birddoggers who made their way to Washington. Before this year, many never contacted their representatives, been to the Capitol, or been involved in activism, much less risked arrest. And many showed up for this fight not only because it was right, but because it was personal and potentially fatal:
“I'm just a mom. I did what any parent would do,” said Rebecca Wood of Charlottesville, Virginia. Wood’s five-year-old daughter Charlie has battled lifelong, chronic health complications due to her severely premature birth; her ongoing survival depends on expensive medical care. Never before politically active, since January, Wood has joined ‘The Little Lobbyists’ group of families, and attended 42 protests, lobbied countless hours, met members of Congress, participated in actions in seven cities, and been arrested twice. “Charlie has come so far,” Wood said, “and it’s because of the services that insurance coverage and her Medicaid waiver have made possible. With the ACA, she now has a very good chance at a typical adulthood. Without it, she’s sentenced to a lifetime of unnecessary disability.”
“Last week in Kansas, I told Senator Moran to his face that I had a pre-existing condition and that Graham-Cassidy could kill me, yet he refused to condemn the bill,” said Kansas State University student Kennedy Hackerott. “This week, I came to D.C. to protect my own life and when I saw Senator Moran again, this time I was in handcuffs. He didn't acknowledge me when I called out to him as he walked by.”
For others, the heathcare fight has been about caring for their patients: “ If the Senators who were ready to support Graham-Cassidy had to answer to patients the way doctors and nurses do,” said Dr. Roona Ray, a board member of Physicians for a National Health Program, “they would have been too ashamed to even consider throwing millions of sick and disabled people—among our most vulnerable Americans—off of healthcare.”
“I didn’t realize when I stood up to Senator [Bill] Cassidy during a public even here this month, that I was only one in a long line of people he has lied to,” said Dr. Wendy Johnson of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “After this defeat, he better get that message. As a working physician, Dr. Cassidy’s support for this malicious bill is a profound insult. The medical community has made it clear that we will not stand for it.”
Alice Riener, Chief Legal & Policy Officer at CrescentCare, a New Orleans health center serving low-income people, said, “We are relieved that Congress prioritized the health of over 400,000 Louisianans on Medicaid as well as more than one million people with pre-existing conditions, who have all benefited tremendously from the ACA. We look forward to Congress focusing on shoring up the health insurance marketplace exchanges.”
Many protesters voiced that the elected officials who intended to vote to pass Graham-Cassidy will face dire consequences.
“When Republican Senators like Luther Strange align themselves against people with disabilities and chronic conditions, and threaten our most vulnerable children, they lose. Senator Strange wasn't offering anything to the people of Alabama except less money for sick children, fewer protections for a seniors, and higher out-of-pocket costs. Healthcare affects everyone, and Strange was indistinguishable from his opponent. He lost the moderates who decide elections, and other candidates for office should take heed,” said Matthew Myrick, a parent of a child with cystic fibrosis from Alabama.
“We will beat these attacks on affordable care back every time, and come election time, we will hold the slews of vulnerable GOP House members in Pennsylvania responsible for the actions of their party at the polls,” said Philadelphia resident Jose DeMarco, a leader of ACT UP who is living with HIV. “Even those who voted against the AHCA are going to pay for their party’s crass effort to hurt poor and working people, the elderly and the sick in Pennsylvania. No wonder moderates are resigning already.”
“The majority of Americans do not want the ACA repealed, and even more have been against the recent replacement attempts,” said Dr. Kevin Burns of Tucson, Arizona. “It’s astounding that Senator Flake, who won his seat by a narrow margin, supported a bill that would have resulted in half a million of his constituents losing coverage. He’ll lose re-election to a pet rock next time.”
Despite Tuesday’s victory, the campaign to achieve universal affordable care for all is far from over. The Trump Administration continues to try to force the collapse of the ACA on multiple fronts. In spite of claims of support for devolving power to state, Secretary Price has recently been denying state waiver requests to use funds from reinsurance pools to bring down their own rates, while making it as difficult as possible for those in need of health care to enroll. Advocates are keeping the campaign’s momentum going by pushing for rapid action on a bipartisan bill from Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA). Activists want a bill that funds subsidies needed to stabilize the market and bring down rates, provides federal government funds for state reinsurance programs, and allows people the opportunity to buy in to the Federal Employees Insurance Program. In exchange, states could be granted reasonable flexibility in their ACA waiver applications--as long as ACA benefits and “guardrails” are protected.
In light of the looming threat of willful ACA sabotage, as soon as Kennedy Hackerott and his KSU classmate Garrett Wilkinson were released by Capitol police, they returned to Senator Jerry Moran's office. “We urged the Senator and his staff to protect the lives of disabled people and others in need, and to move forward in a bipartisan manner, starting with funding the cost-sharing reduction subsidies that will keep premiums down for his constituents,” said Wilkinson.
So even as they celebrate this week, advocates are already looking to the future, asserting that they are ready to continue their fight for healthcare relentlessly and persistently, whatever comes, just as they have throughout 2017.
“Thanks to the GOP, I now have a nationwide family,” said Katrina Raser, a member of Tuesdays with Toomey, a Pennsylvania citizen advocacy group. “To the Republicans who plan to keep attacking us, look out—because we will respond relentlessly with fierce determination if you come for any one of us.”
“Now is the time for Congress to work together for solutions to fix healthcare, not break it,” said Burns. “Senator Alexander, who heads up the Senate health committee, should immediately push forward on legislation to fund cost-sharing discounts that will lower premiums, which has broad bipartisan support.”
“I risked deportation because we are at a crossroads in history,” said Illinois resident Eglė Malinauskaitė, a self-identified queer undocumented immigrant living with PTSD. “Millions of people nationwide, documented and undocumented, know that it's time for Medicare for all, the only system that would go beyond incremental fixes and guarantee healthcare as a right. The question electeds must answer now: Will you stand as leaders with the people or will you risk your jobs by standing up for profit?”
Musing about the lessons of this past year , Air Force veteran and teacher G wendolynn Combs noted that she is now a Congressional Candidate for Arkansas's Second District: “The beauty of solidarity is that when we truly engage together, we have the power of numbers. I called Senators for months on end, I demonstrated in my local offices, and even traveled to D.C. repeatedly to let my Senators know their jobs would be in jeopardy if they didn't put people before party. On July 28, when both Arkansas' senators voted to repeal ACA without a replacement, I decided I needed to do even more to defend access to quality healthcare. That is the day I filed with the FEC to run for Congress.”
--* The 400+ arrestees cited here are individuals affiliated with independent local groups across the country that were trained and mobilized in an effort led by Housing Works or the Center for Popular Democracy, who were joined by a half dozen other allied organizations. This number does not include the hundreds of additional arrests sustained by the disabilities rights group ADAPT. All three groups worked and sometimes collaborated to save the ACA, but ADAPT’s actions were theirs alone. Housing Works and CPD are proud to be counted among ADAPT’s supporters.