Some local relieved at Senate's failure to repeal health law
By Gary White
LAKELAND — When Andrea Huntley woke up Friday morning, she turned on her television to find out whether the Affordable Care Act had been repealed.
Huntley said she was “very, very pleased” with the news she heard. The latest version of a Senate bill promoted by Republicans to overturn the law commonly called “Obamacare” failed in a dramatic session that stretched into the early hours of Friday morning.
The vote could not have been closer. The measure came up short by a vote of 51-49 as three Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona — joined 46 Democrats and two independents in voting against it.
The so-called “skinny repeal” bill, a modified version of previous bills that failed to gain a majority, would have deleted the individual mandate to buy health insurance or face a penalty. It also would have scuttled a requirement for companies with at least 50 employees to offer coverage, among other changes.
The latest defeat for Republicans in the Senate means their long quest to kill the Affordable Care Act appears on hold for the immediate future.
Huntley was one of several local residents interviewed at random Friday in downtown Lakeland who shared their opinions on the bill’s defeat.
“Everyone deserves to have health-care insurance and I think John McCain realized that with his health scare,” Huntley said, “and the two other women that stood up as well.”
She referred to McCain’s recent disclosure that he is being treated for brain cancer. The 80-year-old senator left the hospital to take part in congressional votes this week.
Huntley, 49, said she expects Republicans in Congress to continue their attempts to repeal the ACA simply because they want to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature accomplishment. But she said she hopes Republicans will try a more bipartisan approach.
“I think they need to work together and come up with a better solution and fix some of the things that are possible kinks,” she said.
Richard Barnett of Lakeland said he supports President Donald Trump, who aggressively urged Senate Republicans to continue working toward repeal. Barnett expressed disappointment with the process.
“My thoughts are that Congress needs to get their act together,” said Barnett, 75. “I find this to be a congressional problem, not a Republican or Democratic problem. ... It’s frustrating. I’m trying to decide whether or not my senator and representatives are part of the problem or part of the solution.”
Barnett said he sees problems with the nation’s health-care system. He said it’s impossible to reduce insurance premiums while increasing benefits.
He suggested bringing together health-care providers and leaders of insurance companies to suggest improvements to the system.
“We’ve got to sit down and quit being so dad-gum partisan and start talking to each other,” he said.
Jessica Benitez of Winter Haven expressed relief the latest Republican repeal effort was denied.
“I believe that we should have a universal health-care plan,” said Benitez, 46. “We are a first-world nation. We claim that we are a world leader; we should have a health-care plan. The fact that we don’t, and the fact that representatives are fighting so hard against it — it’s a crime.”
Benitez, a medical-benefits consultant, said she works every day with people who can’t get the health care they need because they make slightly too much to meet government requirements.
“They’re right on the edge, and now they’re (members of Congress) trying to take what little they get away,” she said. “It’s a crime. And these people, they’re millionaires and they get a fantastic health plan, and they want to take what the American people are working for away?”
Megan O’Leary and Garrett Clarke were sharing a pizza in Munn Park. O’Leary, 19, said she had gotten a news alert about the vote through a Fox News application on her phone.
The Lakeland resident, a student at Hillsborough Community College, said she supports replacing the Affordable Care Act.
“I think there’s nothing wrong that they haven’t repealed it yet because there needs to be something more strong put in place to replace it with,” she said. “Nothing like Ryancare (a proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan) or any other politician’s replacement really makes any sense. So that’s what we need first.”
O’Leary said her mother doesn’t have health insurance, which forced her to pay a penalty of $850 under the ACA.
Clarke, 19, said he would advise Republicans to continue the effort.
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t keep trying just because they were stopped by just not enough votes,” said Clarke, a Bartow native and a student at Polk State College.
“Just next time come to the table with a better solution to repeal it,” he said. “Don’t just flop something on the table, trying to hurry it up. Come up with something that’s going to work and people are going to like.”
Why do they think Republicans have failed so far to repeal the Affordable Care Act despite now having majorities in both houses of Congress?
“I think the Republicans don’t really come together like they say they are,” O’Leary said. “They don’t really back Trump that much. Within the Republican party, they’re really divided.”
Nancy Moses, taking a break from work in Munn Park, summed up her response to the failed repeal as “relief.”
Moses, a mother of two who works in early childhood development, said she fully supports a system of universal health coverage.
“I want them to come up with a plan that takes care of everyone,” said Moses, 41. “I don’t know that that’s going to happen. I do feel very strongly that we have enough to take care of one another and that caring for one another is our ethical obligation.”
David Wheeler of Lakeland was reading a news report about the vote on his phone as he sat on a bench in Munn Park.
“The way I feel about this thing, first of all, ‘Obamacare’ is good for the poor people,” said Wheeler, 69. “The federal government should pay for the American citizens. They should take care of the elderly. Some people can’t afford it.”
Wheeler, a Vietnam War veteran, receives health care though the Veterans Administration. He chastised Congress for trying to undo the current system.
“If they were to pass it (a repeal measure), 20 million and some would have been without health insurance,” he said. “What are they trying to do: control the population? Kill off all the poor people?
“That seems like to me what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to eradicate as many poor people as they can,” he said.
Tracy Sansotta of Lakeland also said she wanted the ACA to remain in place.
“I think they should keep it the way it is,” Sansotta said during a break from work. “I don’t think Mr. Trump is going to have anything better.”
Like previous Republican proposals, the “skinny repeal” would have eliminated federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Anna V. Eskamani, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, applauded what she called a grassroots effort to defeat what she labeled “Trumpcare.”
“There is no denying that it was women who stopped this bill in its tracks,” she said by email. “Since the very beginning, women have led the opposition — from organizing rallies and marches to flooding congressional town halls and hosting weekly phone banks. Americans across this country joined in the rallying cry against this bill and never let up.”
Eskamani said she doesn’t expect Republicans to give up their quest.
“At Planned Parenthood, we know that this is not the end of fighting for what we believe in, but it’s a big step forward,” she said.
The repeal bill would have transferred funding away from Planned Parenthood and directed it to community health centers, such as Central Florida Health Care. The nonprofit organization operates 13 clinics in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.
Central Florida Health Care receives about 40 percent of its funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. The rest comes from a mixture of Medicare and Medicaid, CEO Ann Claussen said.
The clinics also benefit from a half-cent Polk County sales tax residents voted last year to retain.
Claussen said she has followed the health-care drama in Congress.
“I guess I’m not surprised,” she said. “I think it’s going to take some concerted effort on both sides to sit down and come up with what they feel is the best plan for us.”