In a letter to their colleagues written earlier this February, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, encouraged Democratic senators to lead rallies on Feb. 25 across the nation to safeguard the Affordable Care Act. In Rhode Island, hundreds gathered at the Save Obamacare Rally at Rhode Island College where U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin D-RI joined physicians, medical students and constituents to voice support for the ACA. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-RI, was not present due to official delegation duties.
At the rally, audience members applauded Reed’s assertion of the ACA’s fate as a nonpartisan matter. “This is not a Republican or Democratic issue — when you go into that hospital room, they don’t ask you what party you’re affiliated with,” Reed said.
Rachel Flum, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute — an organization committed to improving the economic well-being of Rhode Island residents — opposed repealing the ACA and changing Medicaid’s structure through block grants.
Currently, Rhode Island is in a joint state and federal partnership in the Medicaid program. The federal government pays 50 cents for every dollar that Rhode Island spends on health insurance, Flum added. Flum raised concerns over the administration’s mandate to convert Medicaid into a block grant program, which would set a fixed amount of advance funding and shift the cost responsibilities solely to the state.
Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s White House counselor, announced the administration’s support of block grants on NBC’s “Sunday Today” last month. Though Republicans like Conway have argued for block grants in order to provide more flexibility, Flum said such plans would not suffice to improve the system.
“If they repeal the ACA and block grant Medicaid, Rhode Island and all other states are going to be in a whole pile of trouble,” Flum said. “We are on the precipice of health care disaster.”
The elected leaders discussed the prevalence of “repair over repeal” in regards to the ACA. Langevin assured constituents that their voices had been heard and vowed to protect Medicaid and the ACA. “We know improvements can be made — and will be made — but repeal is not the answer,” Langevin said.
Whitehouse similarly thanked constituents for their efforts to stop the repeal, assuring audience members that a repeal is unlikely. Democrats in the Senate are not cooperating with the Republicans, Whitehouse said, adding that Democrats are now playing offense in the matter. Whitehouse said he had refiled the public insurance option, and the audience erupted in applause.
“They’re not the only ones who can play with health care reform,” Whitehouse said.
Though these elected officials aim to fight most of the president’s health care platform, they said they supported Trump’s campaign promise to negotiate pharmaceutical costs and protect Medicare and social security. When asked by an audience member if the elected leaders would reject donations from insurance and pharmaceutical companies, Reed said he did not think he had ever received such a donation but did not specify in regards to future donations. Whitehouse and Langevin declined to answer.
Jonathan Staloff MD’19 spoke at the rally and discussed his childhood dream to become a doctor — a dream that has been tainted as he has discovered the inequality of the U.S. health care system.
“The way our health care system is structured prevents me from being able to say doctors heal the sick,” Staloff said. “The sad truth is the United States healthcare system is structured so physicians can only heal those who can pay.”
“In a world without the ACA, healing will have a sticker price that millions won’t be able to afford,” he added.