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Press Democrat: Large, supportive crowd in Santa Rosa backs Democrats’ defense of health care law

Feb 25, 2017
News Articles

A capacity crowd of at least 1,000 people turned out Saturday morning in Santa Rosa at a town hall meeting organized by Democratic lawmakers to lend support to state and federal efforts to defend health care coverage received by millions of people under the Affordable Care Act.

Gathered in the gym at Piner High School, the audience members gave prolonged applause to area legislators who called for resistance to plans by the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to do away with Obamacare, the former president’s landmark law overhauling medical coverage.

“I think everybody understands that ‘repeal and replace’ is a cheap campaign slogan,” said Rep Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who hosted the gathering. “What we’re talking about is our lives and livelihoods.”

Should the act be repealed, Thompson said, an estimated 23 million Americans would stand at risk of losing coverage, and 3 million health care workers could lose their jobs.

Thompson’s office afterward estimated the crowd at more than 1,000. One staff member earlier put the number at closer to 2,000.

Before the meeting, attendees could be seen walking three blocks or more on Fulton Road to reach the gym after the school parking lot and nearby streets couldn’t accommodate all the parked vehicles.

Thompson was joined at the meeting by six state legislators, including all four representing Sonoma County. In conversations before and after the meeting, the elected officials uniformly expressed how striking it was to behold so many people gathered on a Saturday morning to discuss public policy.

“I’ve never seen it before in my time,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who has served in various elected offices for nearly two decades.

Many in the crowd were forced to stand or sit on the floor for the two-hour meeting.

During the presentations by legislators and a panel of health care experts, the audience cheered calls for a single-payer system of insurance and funding for Planned Parenthood. They cheered explanations of how Obamacare guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting health conditions and how it expanded coverage for mental health and drug addiction treatment. They also applauded legislators’ support for efforts to slow the rise of prescription drug prices and ban advertisements for such drugs on television.

Among the legislators present were state Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, and Assembly members Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg; Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters.

The meeting, which was shown live online, didn’t have the confrontational nature that some Republican Congressional members have faced in recent town hall meetings around the nation. If there were opponents to Obamacare in the room, they remained silent.

During their comments, elected officials called for continued defiance and suggested that Republican Congressional leaders eventually will decide it is in their best interest to preserve the Affordable Care Act in some fashion.

Hernandez, the chair of the state Senate health committee, likened the GOP members of Congress to a dog that chases a car and catches it. Now that Republicans have power over the law, he said, “they don’t know what the heck to do with it.”

Thompson similarly pointed to comments last week by former GOP House Speaker John Boehner that Republican Congressional members never once agreed on a healthcare reform plan in 25 years and that they now would “fix the flaws” in Obamacare rather than repeal it.

Nonetheless, Thompson said, the law’s supporters need to follow the advice of 19th century African American social reformer Frederick Douglass and “agitate, agitate, agitate.”

In terms of the law’s benefits, Mary Szecsey, executive director of West County Health Centers, said the rate of uninsured Sonoma County residents was halved in three years, dropping from 14 percent to about 7 percent.

“These are our most vulnerable patients,” she said of those who obtained coverage under the law.

Speakers said more Americans now have insurance coverage, a primary care doctor and an alternative to making the hospital emergency room their first place for obtaining medical coverage.

Chris Manson, a regional director with St. Joseph Health in Northern California, said the amount of money that St. Joseph pays to subsidize uninsured patients has steadily decreased under the overhaul.

“That’s the proof that what we have in place is actually working,” he said.

Speakers also said the health care insurance system that California instituted under the law is providing care in an efficient way. Health care premiums continue to rise in the state, “but at a much lower rate” than in other states, said Deborah Kelch, executive director of the nonprofit California health care access group, Insure the Uninsured Project.

Afterward, Pamela Van Halsema of Santa Rosa said the strong turnout was inspiring .

“It was heartening to see there was so much support here” for preserving the health care law, she said.

Van Halsema and friend Amanda Berglund, who was also on hand Saturday, took part in the women’s march that drew thousands to downtown Santa Rosa to protest a day after President Trump’s inauguration.

Berglund said that although she was impressed by size of Saturday’s audience, the event didn’t allay her anxiety about the health care law’s fate.

“I think it’s in real danger,” she said.