Health care advocates call on Sens. Corker and Alexander to oppose GOP bill
Brandon Paykamian • Updated Sep 23, 2017 at 12:13 PM
It may be a moot point now that a major player in the U.S. Senate has voiced his opposition, but several Tennessee health care advocates are urging the state’s two senators to vote against the GOP’s latest Obamacare repeal effort.
On Thursday, 16 national organizations and state leaders from six of those organizations joined in a statement urging Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker to reject the Graham-Cassidy bill, which will move to the Senate for a vote next week.
One of the main concerns that Tennessee health care advocates have about the recent Republican attack on the Affordable Care Act involves the potential impact it could have on patients with pre-existing conditions by allowing states to opt out of the provision that protects patients from an increase in premiums.
Terry Jo Bichell, ambassador of the National Organization for Rare Disorders, said more than 30 million patients with rare diseases could be particularly vulnerable if the Graham-Cassidy proposal passes. As a mother of a son with a rare genetic condition, she believes the proposal would “allow insurers to provide inadequate coverage,” which she said could mean “a lifetime of disability or death.”
“The thing about rare diseases is that they hit randomly,” Bichell said. “They can happen to anyone.”
“Speaking on behalf of my son who can not speak, and millions with rare diseases, we urge both Republican and Democrat senators to stand up for the rare disease community and oppose the Graham-Cassidy bill.”
The proposal, crafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R- South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R- Louisiana, would turn control of health care markets over to the states and insurance companies. By giving states block grants, states could also develop any health care system they want, which means some states could choose to opt out of the Affordable Care Act entirely.
On Friday, Arizona Sen. John McCain became the latest Republican to break ranks on the bill. His statement likely deals a fatal blow to the last-gasp GOP measure in the Senate showdown expected next week. The Arizona Republican said he can’t back the partisan GOP measure because “we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats,” according to the Associated Press.
Advocates say more than 545,000 Tennesseans could lose their coverage completely, and more than 2.7 million Tennesseans with pre-existing conditions could see an increase in their health care costs if the bill passes.
Organizations urging lawmakers to oppose the proposal included the ALS Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Arthritis Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Family Voices, March of Dimes, the National Health Council and the National Organization for Rare Diseases, among others.
Family Voices of Tennessee Director Kara Adams has a son with a rare heart condition that has required him to get multiple surgeries. She is worried that her son would suffer if the bill passes.
“This bill would be detrimental to the families of Tennessee,” she said of the recent proposal.
Michael Holtz, a cancer survivor who serves as Knoxville’s state lead volunteer for the American Cancer Society, said he too is concerned with the possible “rollbacks of benefits and pre-existing condition protections” that could happen if the proposal makes it through the Senate. He said the proposal would “completely fail to protect cancer patients,” citing drastic cuts to Medicaid.
“I want Alexander and Corker to understand the specific impact this would have on Tennesseans,” he said of the cuts. “We urge the Senate to focus on bipartisan efforts to oppose the harmful proposals by Graham and Cassidy.”
March of Dimes Director of Advocacy Tamara Currin said the proposal, which also includes a one-year Medicaid funding freeze on Planned Parenthood, could greatly affect mothers and infants by restricting access to women’s health care. As for the proposed Medicaid cuts, she said the proposal would make it “impossible for states to cover the same amount of people (adults and children) with the same services.”
“This could mean not covering pregnant women or children’s health care,” she said of the proposal.
On top of this, Currin said lifting the ban on charging more for patients with pre-existing conditions “will erect new barriers” to patients’ access to health care.
Sen. Alexander said he supports the Graham-Cassidy proposal, despite criticisms such as these and the opposition of some Republican leaders, including McCain.
“I would like to vote for Graham-Cassidy because I like block grants and it appears to be good for Tennessee,” he said in an email statement Thursday.
Though Corker said Tuesday that he wasn’t sure about his stance on the proposal, he said he now supports the bill.
“From the beginning of this debate, I have said that I want to generate an outcome that is better for the American people than what is in place today, and at present, I am very encouraged by the fact that the Graham-Cassidy legislation repeals the core elements of Obamacare and its one-size-fits-all approach and provides the flexibility governors across our country have been seeking for years,” Corker wrote in a recent statement.
Bristol resident Mary Burrell said she has struggled to retain insurance throughout her life and now gets her insurance through her disability benefits. She has been battling bipolar disorder and diabetes for years now, and the support of the proposal shown by Alexander and Corker has left her greatly concerned.
“It feels like to me that it’s just to get rid of Obama’s legislation instead of what’s really good for Americans,” Burrell said. “To have that taken away because someone doesn’t agree with former policy just because of ideological differences is unacceptable.
“They need to listen to their constituents.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, said he is still looking over the bill, but seems to be leaning toward supporting the proposal, according to his spokeswoman, Lani Short.
“Congressman Roe is still reviewing the proposal introduced by Senators Graham and Cassidy, but is encouraged that their proposal seems based on the principle of federalism and letting states decide how best to deliver patient-centered care. He continues to be committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare, and looks forward to reviewing the proposal in greater detail as it awaits Senate consideration,” she said in an email statement to Johnson City Press.
Dr. Martin Olsen, an East Tennessee State University physician, has years of experience working with opioid-addicted pregnant women to help reduce the risk of addiction in newborns. He said he is concerned that the proposal could be a major setback for the 1st District, which has continued to witness an increase in infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
“Right now, the money for NAS is low, so the support for women with NAS is already low. There’s no proposal (in Graham-Cassidy) to make it better that I’ve seen,” he said. “The impact could be devastating.”
Olsen said he’d like to see reforms in the U.S. health care system. One of those changes involves controlling pharmaceutical costs and incremental regulation.
Compared to health care systems such as in the Netherlands, which has a single-payer system, he said American health care has been falling behind in treating those who simply can’t afford coverage — even with the ACA still in place. He said the Graham-Cassidy proposal could make this problem even worse.
“It is excellent health care for those who can access it,” Olsen said. “But it’s already more expensive than the other health care systems.”
Even with treatable and preventable diseases, Olsen said his hands are tied.
“I see a lot of patients that can’t get better because they don’t have coverage,” he said.