Illinois Republicans try to lay low on repealing Obamacare

Photo by Yingxu Jane Hao

Hundreds rally outside Trump Tower in Chicago to protest Republicans’ effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2017.

While a handful of U.S. senators were huddling in secret this week in Washington to draft legislation repealing Obamacare, grassroots activists across the Chicago region and Illinois were working hard to bring as much public attention – and public outrage – to the issue as possible.

That includes shining a light on the inaction of Governor Bruce Rauner – who has not spoken out as other Republican governors have – and on Republican members of Congress who have avoided public engagement on the issue.

“They have been dodging us, avoiding town halls, avoiding constituent meetings,” said Clare Duggan of Indivisible Chicago.  “So we’ve opened up the discussion.”

Their tactics include protests outside congressional offices – sometimes attracting hundreds of constituents – along with door-to-door canvassing and a billboard truck that has travelled the state.  The mobile billboard will arrive in Chicago for an afternoon rally at the Federal Plaza on Thursday, the same day senators are slated to release their bill.

“If there is a silver lining here, it’s that there is a ton of grassroots organizing going on across the state, and people are really fired up,” said Stephani Becker, senior policy specialist at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

Carolynne Funk, an Indivisible activist in Arlington Heights in the 6th congressional district, said U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam told her he would never hold a town hall.  Instead, she was invited to a small meeting with the congressman – “a closed meeting, no recording devices, no reporters,” she said – days before the vote on the House bill.

Funk said she told Roskam about the medical crisis her young daughter had recently gone through.  “Without [Obamacare] coverage, I can’t begin to imagine what our life would have been like,” she now says.  And eliminating insurance guarantees for individuals with pre-existing conditions, as in the House bill then under consideration, would make it difficult for her family to get coverage.

Roskam told her he was undecided on the bill. Three days later he voted for it, as did every Republican in the House. The bill passed – without any hearings, without expert testimony, and without a score by the Congressional Budget Office – by two votes.

Roskam and two other Illinois Republicans who were undecided before the House vote, Randy Hultgren (14th) and Adam Kinzinger (16th), could be the focus of renewed attention if the Senate version passes and is sent to the House.

Funk said Roskam pursued “a deliberate strategy to stay under the radar so people don’t know where he stands” – which she called “a huge accountability problem.” She said that in months of working on the issue, she hasn’t encountered a single 6th District voter who supports the House bill Roskam backed.

“We are going to make sure that all voters know where [Roskam] stands and what his values are,” she said.  “He puts tax cuts for the rich over health care for his constituents.”

The Senate version is expected to differ in some respects from the bill passed by the House, but it will certainly include major cuts to Medicaid in order to finance hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tax cuts, mainly for top earners.  Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to cover the working poor is expected to be phased out, and the traditional Medicaid program will face budget caps that are likely to result in limits on eligibility or on services covered, Becker said.

Along with phaseouts of subsidies for private insurance and removal of consumer protections, including Obamacare’s ban on lifetime benefit caps, it’s estimated that the House bill would eliminate health coverage for 710,000 people in Illinois, she said.  That will include hundreds of thousands of children, who account for 55 percent of the state’s Medicaid recipients.  Illinois stands to lose $40 billion in Medicaid funds over ten years. And with reduced health spending, tens of thousands of jobs are expected to disappear in Illinois.

With massive potential damage to the state, many are also faulting Rauner’s limited expressions of “concern.” “Illinois families are going to lose healthcare and jobs,” said Duggan.  “As a leader of the Republican Party, Gov. Rauner should be speaking out.” Instead, “he is speaking with his silence.”

Physicians wearing white lab coats, members of Doctors For America, will join the rally Thursday in Chicago, said Laura Craig, M.D.  She said every major healthcare organization, from the American Medical Association and American Cancer Society on down, is opposed to the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare.  And she said she hears constantly from patients about their worries regarding the future of their insurance.

None of that matters to the people who are now in charge. We seem to be governed by politicians who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their constituents, and interested only improving the lot of their wealthy donors.

But if they thought they were going to pull this off while no one was watching, they were wrong.