David Sarasohn: Saving Oregonians' healthcare, one town hall at a time
BEAVERTON - In a giant jammed gymnasium, stuffed full of Oregonians drawn to a town hall by the prospect of Congress dismantling health care, questioners rarely asked about the actual bill, the one that seemed to be slowly decomposing over the July 4 break.
Opposition was so complete it barely needed to be mentioned.
Of course, questioners would thank Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici for their opposition to the bill, before asking them about something like outdoor policy. And Wyden and Bonamici themselves would bring the subject back to topics like pre-existing conditions, or sections redirecting Medicaid toward a cliff.
The Senate Republican bill, warned Bonamici, would take health coverage from 511,000 Oregonians, a statement that drew a roar of dismay and an urgent waving of green cards to show support for the speakers. The same outcry, audible and visible, greeted Wyden's warning that the bill would throw out Obamacare's rules on what insurance had to cover.
Since arriving in the Senate two decades ago, Wyden has followed a policy of holding one town hall every year in each of Oregon's 36 counties. But on this Thursday in early July, he was already holding his 51st town hall of the year, with two more to come before he returned to D.C. at the end of the recess.
And, he insisted in an interview after the rally, the message from town halls in Republican territory like Redmond and Newberg wasn't greatly different from the message in steadily bluer Beaverton. "I've never seen a situation," Wyden declared, "when the urban and rural parts of Oregon reacted the same way."
(A part of the feeling may be the calculation that Oregon's deep-red 2nd district mostly east of the Cascades, represented by House Republican leadership member Greg Walden, is one of the top districts in the country for insurance gains under Obamacare. An estimated 64,000 locals gaining coverage. Rural hospitals and health clinics are being particularly kept afloat by the legislation, which may not produce Beaverton-level roars but can make a small-town hall welcoming to Wyden - and somewhat obstreperous for Walden.)
The responses made it hard to remember the summer of 2009, when it seemed Bonamici's predecessor, Rep. David Wu, would barely escape alive from town halls where he defended his support of Obamacare, and local police were needed to keep irate audiences in their seats. Either global warming has changed Oregonians' summer attitudes, or after several years in operation, the program has actually gotten more popular.)
It's a long way from even the most crowded and boisterous Oregon rally to the U.S. Capitol, but Wyden insisted to the crowd that they covered the distance. "Without this outcry," he told the Beaverton audience, "sometime last month, around two or three in the morning, the Senate would have passed (Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell's bill."
It still might happen. Last week, McConnell declared that to try and pass a bill, he would keep the Senate in session two weeks past its scheduled August recess date. That will no doubt mess up Wyden's town hall schedule, but it was unclear whether it would let McConnell nail down the 50 out of 52 Republican senators he needed.
Last Thursday, hours after McConnell unveiled the newest version of his bill, Wyden joined Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray in a press conference to declare that Democratic opposition was unchanged.
"The recess," he reported afterward, "was not kind to Mitch McConnell."
The message had gotten back, Wyden explained, even though, "I don't think there was a large number of Republican senators holding open-to-all town meetings."
McConnell's new version did not change the sharp cutbacks on Medicaid - a particular problem for Oregon, which has seized expanded Medicaid opportunities. And he added Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's plan to let insurance companies offer plans with minimal coverage, which Wyden assessed would "blow a hole in the system."
By Thursday afternoon, GOP senators Rand Paul on the right and Susan Collins in the middle had declared they were still not happy, two other Republican senators had proposed their own plan, and Wyden noted that North Dakota's John Hoeven and Kansas's Jerry Moran had expressed doubts: "These are not senators who have gone out of their way to break from their party."
The thing to watch, Wyden warns, is the "$100 billion taxpayer-paid slush fund" in the bill, resources that he says McConnell is brandishing in his talks with senators.
Still, the tide may be going the wrong way. Last week, hospital groups, insurance groups, disease advocacy organizations and elderly advocates became even louder in attacks. And, although unrelated to health care, Wyden noted that the week's burst of Russian stories "didn't bring a lot of authority to the brand."
Even with the expanded schedule, he concludes, "Two weeks in August is not going to fix this deeply flawed bill."
And it will still leave time for some more town halls.