Many politicians, including senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), are ducking their constituents — or liberal activists, they would say — by avoiding town hall meetings.
Not Republican U.S. Representative Gus Bilirakis, however, who represents the 12th District of Florida, which includes all of Wesley Chapel.
In fact, Rep. Bilirakis is tackling his town halls head on, including one held Feb. 22 at Wesley Chapel High on Wells Rd.
While the crowd of roughly 150 wasn’t quite as rowdy as some of the other town halls Bilirakis has hosted recently, the message was clear: don’t take away our healthcare, but fix it.
Those fixes, said most of those in attendance, shouldn’t include getting rid of some of the more popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), specifically the number one concern raised that evening — coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
“I’m begging you to keep something with pre-existing conditions,’’ said Bonnie Axler of Land O’Lakes. “I will lose my husband (who has cancer) if you don’t keep something.”
Bilirakis, praised by many of the speakers for showing up and not hiding from the people he represents, appeared to be truly listening to many of those speaking up. He cited his meetings with his constituents as the reason behind his support for the Obamacare repeal, which Republicans unveiled this week.
Although widely panned by Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as receiving little support from the country’s leading hospital and doctor groups like the American Medical Association (AMA), the Federation of American Hospitals and the AARP, Bilirakis said in a press release Thursday that “We have a better plan” than Obamacare.
The replacement, the American Health Care Act, is, according to Bilirakis, “the answer to lower costs, expand choices, and give patients more control. This bill reflects the feedback I’ve heard from my constituents over the past eight years. With our bill, we will put in place a health care system that works for Florida and the nation.”
A member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, Bilirakis is co-sponsoring the Pre-Existing Conditions Protection Act, which prohibits insurance companies from denying access, limiting coverage or raising premiums because someone is already sick.
Bilirakis also would like to see any replacement plan retain the ACA provision that allows people to keep their kids on their insurance until they turn age 26. That was good news to Zephyrhills resident Carrol Vaughn, who said she is fighting breast cancer and has a daughter in her 20s.
“There aren’t a lot of options to protect her until she’s 26,’’ she said.
Others, like Kurt Accebach of Odessa, went further. Accebach said everyone pays taxes for the police, the military and our streets, because it is for the common good.
“Maybe it’s time healthcare became a common good,’’ he said. A number of town hall attendees went over to shake Accebach’s hand afterwards.
Despite being in favor of some parts of the ACA, Rep. Bilirakis is opposed to Obamacare, voting to repeal it many times and calling it “unsustainable.”
“The costs are too high,’’ he says. “We have to come up with something better.”
His constituents have been showing up to demand it.
One speaker at the Wesley Chapel town hall reminded Rep. Bilirakis that he signed a pledge to repeal Obamacare in 2010, and campaigned on that promise while winning 71 percent of the vote (it was actually 63.5 percent) in 2012. He ran unopposed in 2014 and, in 2016, while still campaigning against Obamacare, Bilirakis received 68.6 percent of the vote.
“My question is to you,” said the speaker, “are you going to keep your campaign promise and repeal Obamacare?”
Bilirakis said he was keeping his promise, but was going to the people for ideas.
While those who voted for him and for President Donald Trump in Republican-friendly Pasco County may be demanding a repeal-and-replacement of the ACA, the controversial healthcare law is gaining in popularity across the country.
According to CNN, the latest Health Tracking Poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a polling source for the healthcare community, found that Obamacare has its highest level of support ever, with 48 percent in favor of it versus 42 percent opposed. A recent Pew Research Center poll (a nonpartisan fact tank), which does extensive public polling on different issues, has those numbers at 54 percent in favor of the ACA vs. 43 percent opposed.
Both are non-partisan organizations.
There remains, however, vocal opposition from those who cite rising costs and a shortage of plans and doctors as their reasons for dismantling it.
A steady stream of speakers lined up to offer their ideas to Bilirakis, ranging from requests to expand Obamacare to those who wanted to see it blown up altogether.
Some, like Axler, admit that the costs may be rising, but, “Every month I call in my credit card for that insurance, I thank God (my husband) is) still alive.”
Many in attendance blamed those rising costs on insurance companies, and cited that the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in America is medical costs.
“When insurance and ‘big pharma’ is run as a profit model, we lose,’’ said Jennifer Higgins of Lutz.
Kim Irvine of Land O’Lakes claimed that Obamacare is not working. “I am for repealing and replacing it,’’ she said.
While she did say she supports a replacement covering pre-existing conditions, she told Bilirakis that those who insisted on keeping their children on their insurance until they were age 26 were “coddling” them.
“They need to grow up and get a real job,’’ she said.
Others, like Sandy Graves of Lutz, said supporters of Obamacare must be listening to “fake news.”
Rev. Mary Anne Dorner of Wesley Chapel said she has been struck by how divisive and looming the healthcare issue has become. “I have never seen people so afraid,” she said. “People are getting sick because they are so afraid.”
Dorner asked Bilirakis not to support a repeal of the ACA if there isn’t an improved replacement plan ready to go immediately.
Some in the crowd were still seething over comments made at Bilirakis’ town hall on Feb. 11, which attracted national attention. At that meet-up, Hudson’s Bill Akins, the then-Secretary of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee, told the crowd that the ACA has a provision for “death panels.” When the crowd erupted in protest, he called them “children” who needed to calm down.
Akins resigned a few days later.
But, Chelsea Bunch of Action Together Tampa Bay confronted Bilirakis (who was accused by some as nodding in agreement with Akins) at the Feb. 22 Town Hall, and asked him to publicly say there is no such thing as “death panels” in the ACA.
Bilirakis grabbed a microphone and said “There is no such thing as death panels in the ACA,” as the crowd erupted.
The town hall, scheduled for 6 p.m.-8 p.m., lasted two-and-a-half hours. Afterwards, Bilirakis posted a statement on his website.
“I held a series of public listening sessions on health care because it is my duty as a Representative to hear firsthand from my constituents, whether we agree or disagree on the issues. I will continue to seek common ground and constructive exchanges of ideas with the people of my district. That’s what democracy is all about.”