Tom MacArthur, the South Jersey congressman who helped revive the GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, came under fire Wednesday from constituents who expressed fear that they and others might lose health coverage if the bill is signed into law.
At an emotionally charged town-hall meeting in heavily Democratic Willingboro, MacArthur, a second-term Republican, heard from exasperated residents in his district, including a man with a heart condition who worried he wouldn’t be able to afford insurance in a high-risk pool if he were to lose his job; a woman on Medicaid recovering from drug addiction, concerned she would end up “in jail, institutions,” or dead without coverage; and a man whose wife had breast cancer.
MacArthur, who represents parts of Burlington and Ocean Counties, started by noting that President Trump won 9 percent of the vote in Willingboro, “and I crushed it with 12 percent.”
“I recognize there’s a lot of anxiety in the country, there’s a lot of anger,” MacArthur said to jeers. “I represent everybody in this district. … I want to meet with my constituents and tell you the things that matter to me, the things I’m doing, and why I’m doing them.”
By and large, the crowd of about 300 did not like what it heard.
“You have been the single greatest threat to my family in the entire world. You are the reason I stay up at night. You are the reason that I can’t sleep,” said Geoff Ginter, 47, a certified medical assistant from Pine Beach.
He said his wife, Colette, had recovered from breast cancer, but every day, “she thinks about it. Is it coming back? Is it going to kill me?”
“Now she also has to contend with, what if my husband loses his job?”
Ginter said his two children also have preexisting conditions.
At issue was an amendment MacArthur introduced to the House bill that would allow states to obtain waivers to provisions in Obamacare that aim to make insurance affordable for people with preexisting medical conditions and that require insurers to provide for certain “essential” benefits, such as maternity care.
States that obtain such a waiver would be required to create high-risk pools for those with preexisting conditions, but critics and independent analysts have questioned whether the legislation would provide states with enough money to make coverage affordable.
The House narrowly passed the legislation, with no Democratic votes and a number of Republican defections, including by lawmakers from the Philadelphia region.
MacArthur’s amendment helped push the legislation through the House by winning over conservative members who said it would allow states to opt out of key Obamacare mandates.
The House passed the bill before the Congressional Budget Office could project its cost. But under a previous iteration of the legislation, the CBO estimated 24 million more Americans would be uninsured in 10 years than under current law.
“This is something that’s very real. This is my life,” said Derek Reichenbecher, 39, of Point Pleasant, who said he was diagnosed with a heart condition at 23 and was grateful when Obamacare passed in 2009 because it provided protections for those with preexisting conditions.
“Without health-care coverage, I’m dead,” he said. “And this is your amendment, sir. It’s yours. You own it.”
MacArthur, a former insurance executive, said, “I am watching an insurance industry collapsing.” Premiums and deductibles are increasing in Obamacare’s individual market, MacArthur said, with healthy people dropping out and sick people staying in.
“I want to save that market,” MacArthur said. “But if we do nothing, insurers will continue to drop out. It cannot survive.”
That prompted him to act, he said. MacArthur said that the federally subsidized high-risk pools he proposed would ensure that those with preexisting conditions have coverage and reduce costs for healthy people.
And he emphasized that the House legislation wasn’t a total overhaul of Obamacare. “There’s a lot of things in the Affordable Care Act we did not touch,” he said.
The bill has not advanced in the Senate.
The meeting was contentious before it started. In the hours leading up to the event, about a thousand people waited outside, some holding signs like “It’s Health Care Not the Hunger Games” and “Trump ‘Care’ Kills.”
“This bill must die!” they chanted. “If you repeal the ACA, in 2018 you’ll have to pay!”
As MacArthur tried to tell the story of his daughter Gracie – who was born with severe health problems and died at age 11 – members of the audience accused him of politicizing her death.
“Shame on you!” one woman shouted.
“I would say shame on you, right now,” MacArthur replied.
The congressman was able to defuse the tension at times during the three-hour meeting, but it was contentious throughout.
Some constituents expressed outrage over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey amid the bureau’s inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Asked if he supported the appointment of a special prosecutor, MacArthur said the FBI, House, and Senate should be given time to complete their investigations. Of a special prosecutor, he said, “I don’t see that as some silver bullet.”
One man asked: “When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?”
Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct a quote attributed to a woman on Medicaid recovering from drug addiction. She said she was concerned she would end up “in jail, institutions,” or dead without coverage, not "in jail, prostitution," as appeared in an earlier version of the story.