By Fred Allebach | Special to the Sun
Sonoma Valley Federal Congressman Mike Thompson held a public meeting on health care Saturday, February 25 at Piner High School in Santa Rosa. No meeting was planned for Sonoma Valley. Sonoma Valley residents had to drive to Santa Rosa to attend to this local government business.
Mike Thompson hosted the event along with Sonoma Valley state congressman Marc Levine, and Sonoma Valley state senator Bill Dodd. State senators Hernandez and McGuire also took part. A panel of county health care actors were present to give background before the elected representatives took questions from the audience.
The event was attended by an estimated 2,500 people. Not one parking space was available for a mile in all directions. Just like the Women’s March, and other current legislative recess town hall meetings nationwide, there was a massive turnout. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, middle-aged baby boomers, i.e. white seniors.
Owing to the packed house and difficulty parking, this report missed the first three speakers.
The unifying theme was to elucidate the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) and highlight the costs of repeal. One woman on the panel, speaking in support of Planned Parenthood, who she said saved her life, said, “being a woman is not a pre-existing condition.” Planned Parenthood is threatened with federal health care funding cuts.
A west county health care actor said the county has six non-profit community health care facilities, with 23 locations, including the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, that in total serve 100,000 people a year. One in five people in the county use these facilities. Average clinic users have an annual income of $38,000, which is $22,000 below the Area Median Income, or AMI.
The ACA has reduced the uninsured rate in Sonoma County from 14% to 7%. And, emergency room visits for routine health care situations have gone way down because people are able to go to clinics for preventative care. These overall reduced costs lead to health care system sustainability. “The numbers bear this out”, said a St. Joseph’s hospital rep.
Repeal of the ACA will cause 32,000 in the county to lose MediCal, and 23,000 would lose coverage from Covered California rollbacks. This, said the panel, would drive up the cost of insurance and health care for everyone.
Repeal, said panel members, would have profound and serious consequences, and be extremely disruptive on health care institution’s ability to provide care. Clinics would have to undergo dramatic staff and budget changes. The sum total effect would be to lose out on preventative, upstream management of healthcare and go back to emergency room visits, after people have become seriously ill.
A St. Joseph’s hospital representative on the panel said, “health care is a basic human right”, that meets a basic human need. The “ACA is a success”, he said. “Repeal means there has to be a replace”, he said, “but there is no credible replacement.” As many federal representatives have noted, the Republican Congress now owns health care, and any ACA replacement will have to at least equal the benefits of the ACA, or be seen as a Republican policy failure.
Connie Barker of the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, who is a home health care worker, mentioned the Supreme Court’s Olmstead Decision, which creates a preference to keep elders in their homes rather than in nursing home institutions. Turning Medicaid benefits, that the public has earned and paid for, into state block grants, as the Paul Ryan Congress proposes to do, will mean that federal health care monies will not be able to keep up with health care inflation, and that seniors will end up sent to nursing home-type institutions, unable to afford home health care.
An AARP representative asked, “what is at stake for those on Medicare?” The answer: higher out-of-pocket and higher prescription drug costs. With the ACA, 400,000 Californians have saved millions on prescription drug costs. With repeal, all citizens will pay more, as there will be no brakes on Big Pharma. Seniors could end up paying much more for health care under repeal, an increase of from 3 to 1 costs over people in their 20’s to 5 to 1.
In the question and answer time, senators Hernandez and McGuire promised told hold Big Pharma’s feet to the fire on reducing costs. McGuire would like to limit gifts to doctors, to do away with pressure to prescribe expensive drugs. Congressman Thompson would like California to be able to negotiate bulk pharmaceutical pricing like the Veterans Administration does, to take advantage of an economy of scale. Thompson would also like to prohibit pharmaceutical ads on TV. To great applause, he said the Citizen’s United decision needs to be repealed. Citizen’s United allows Big Pharma to buy outsize influence over the public health care good.
Thompson pledged to bring the great energy and sentiment of this public meeting to the fight on the Congress floor.
Senator Hernandez warned that should citizen-earned health care benefits be reduced to state block grants, that California does not have the revenue to make up the 21-billion-dollar difference. The state alone will not be able to keep up with health care inflation and there will be no choice but to either raise taxes or reduce services. This, he said, amounted to the Trump administration “taking advantage of poor people to solve the country’s problems.” Therefore, he said, it is urgent that constituents not just show up at town halls, but also write and call Republican legislators and weigh in on this health care issue. In this regard, interestingly, Paul Ryan has made it impossible for anyone not in his district to send him an email
Republicans in Central Valley districts have a lot of constituents who will lose health care and see rising costs with repeal. Give them a call said Hernandez.
State Senator McGuire said there is a bill in the works to make California a single payer health care system. This would cost more in state taxes up front, but make California independent of federal health care turbulence.
State Senator Dodd noted that Californian has hired former federal Attorney General Eric Holder, and that state Attorney General Javier Becerra will be taking care of business. “There is a playbook”, said Dodd.