WASHINGTON — On Monday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence held what the White House billed as a “listening session” in his ceremonial office with people who said they had negative experiences with Obamacare. Several members of the group delivered emotional pleas asking senators to approve the Republican health care bill that would replace Obamacare. Amid doubts that the bill will pass, Pence repeatedly told the group that “help is on the way.”
Pence was joined by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, who referred to the group who shared their stories as Obamacare “victims.” According to a White House official, the people invited to the listening session were identified at “various health care events around the country that the vice president has participated in.” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma was also in attendance.
The event came amid questions about just how much the White House supports the Senate health care bill, which was largely authored by the office of GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Experts say the bill would cut Medicaid and raise deductibles, which would violate Trump’s campaign promises. This has led more moderate Republicans to hedge on whether they will back the legislation. Members of the party’s most conservative wing have also raised objections to the bill since it is not a full repeal of Obamacare.
McConnell has said he hopes to pass the bill in the Senate before the July 4 recess, which effectively means by Friday. But tepid support within the Republican Party has raised widespread doubts about whether the majority leader can get the 50 votes he needs.
Trump and the White House were closely associated with an earlier GOP health care bill in the House of Representatives. Polls shows that legislation, estimated to cut insurance coverage for 23 million people, was tremendously unpopular. Since holding a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate passage of the House bill, Trump has distanced himself from the Senate legislation including, in a television interview last Sunday where the president confirmed he called the legislation “mean.”
However, at the vice president’s event on Monday, both Pence and Conway indicated the White House has been aggressively working to push the Senate bill. Pence began the roundtable by thanking the group for coming from “all across the country” to “help us tell the real story about what’s happening with real Americans in the failed policies of Obamacare.” He described Verma and Conway as “two leaders who have been directly involved in our efforts to keep the promise the president made to the American people to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
Pence said Obamacare’s poor performance has led to some “alarming” statistics.
“But the reason why we’re grateful that you’ve taken time to be here is because the story of Obamcare’s failure is not a story of statistics. It’s a story of real people and real hardship placed on the American people,” said Pence. “So, the reason why we wanted you to come to the White House today was really to have a chance to tell your stories as members of the Senate will work over the course of the coming days to give us an opportunity to turn the page on the failed policies of Obamacare.”
The first member of the group to speak in Pence’s office was Julie Champine, who said she was eager to have “our story, the actual American, to get out there.”
“All I hear in the press is, ‘Oh my gosh, the Republicans are just taking away subsidies and all the freebies.’ What about the stories that we — what happened to us back in 2009 when we lost our insurance, we lost our doctor,” Champine said. “What about those stories?”
The Affordable Care Act was actually passed in 2010.
Champine went on to claim her “premiums on the Obamacare exchange have skyrocketed” and that her family’s “deductibles are off the charts.”
“And that’s Obamacare,” Pence said.
“That is Obamacare,” Champine replied.
The vice president clasped her hand and shook hands with her husband as he thanked them for coming.
Later, Pence turned to Erin Witzig and her daughter Poppy, who was seated at the head of the large table. Pence said Poppy has a “rare condition that requires serious medical care” and her parents had “lost their Obamacare plan” and were forced “to buy a new one that costs more, covers less.”
“We actually thought in the beginning it was going to be a benefit to us and we were a little bit excited about it,” Erin said of Obamacare. “However, every year it has changed and, at this point now, we can’t get the bandages she needs. She can’t see the doctor she needs.”
Chris McCullough from Louisiana spoke next, and said she found it “cheaper” to pay penalties for going without health insurance than to pay for coverage provided through Obamacare that had a high combined deductible and premium cost. Pence turned to Verma and asked, “How many millions of Americans choose to pay the penalty?”
“6.5 million,” Verma replied.
“They could use the money to buy health care,” Conway interjected.
“Chris, how important do you think it would be for Congress to get to the president’s desk?” Pence asked.
“Move now. Go right now. Don’t wait till the meeting’s over. Go get it done. Get rid of Obamacare,” McCullough said, provoking laughs from the group seated at the table.
Pence next introduced Melissa and Rich Ackison. He said they had insurance they liked and were not able to keep it. The vice president also said the Ackisons lost their doctor and have no options for coverage in their Ohio county. After sharing her story, Melissa Ackison offered a message to legislators who have not decided whether to support the Senate health care bill.
“How do you vote for bailouts for large companies? Where’s my bailout? Why aren’t one of you going to bail me out? That’s my question that I would have to those who can’t make a decision,” Ackison said.
Conway spoke next. “I know that sometimes when we speak of Obamacare, quote, ‘victims,’ that’s put in quotation marks as if you’re not real. And to echo what the vice president said, this is about real people. It’s not about statistics,” Conway said.
“The president does not see this as keeping a campaign promise. We see it as a moral imperative to make sure that those who went without care, those who were left out of the system, lost their coverage … lost their jobs, lost their ability as patients, their freedom as patients to exercise their choice, now they’ll have choice. They’ll have access. Those premiums will not skyrocket.”
Pence next introduced Christine Chalkey and her son Jacob, who Pence said has a “very rare condition.” Christine described it as an “unknown truth” and an “injustice” that “children and adults with physical and cognitive disorders, rare medical conditions” who get help through Medicaid are “being cut out as we expand Obamacare through Medicaid.” Christine described Jacob as a “perfect example” of this because cuts that followed a Medicaid expansion in Illinois made a drug he needed prohibitively expensive.
“What we ended up doing is trying a different drug,” Christine explained. “After three days of being on the medicine, Jacob had a major, life-threatening reaction.”
Pence replied by referencing his experience as a former governor:
“I ran a state Medicaid program in Indiana, so I understand exactly what you’re going through. It might be counterintuitive for people to think that a state that expanded Medicaid is actually, as a result of that, reducing services to the most vulnerable. … That’s exactly what you’ve experienced.”
“Exactly,” Christine said. “We are a testament. … We are the truth.”
Jacob called himself “a living miracle” and said he had lived far longer than the handful of others who have his condition. Pence praised him as “an amazing guy.” Jacob handed the vice president a pair of envelopes and explained that one is for Pence and the second is for the president.
“It’s for you to get an insight to know about me,” Jacob said.
Pence promised to hand deliver the letter to the president. Verma added that she also received a note from Jacob earlier.
The vice president then introduced Robert and Amy Dean, a pair of foster parents from Texas who said they faced high costs and lost both the doctor and insurance plan they liked. Robert offered a direct message to Cruz, one of four conservatives who hasn’t committed to supporting the Senate health care bill because it isn’t a full repeal of Obamacare.
“We’re just appealing to you and to Congress, my own Senator Ted Cruz, we need them to pass a bill that provides meaningful reform,” Robert said.
Pence again emphasized the importance of the group’s stories and promised them “help is on the way.”
“I hope anyone looking in, those looking on, know that this is the real story of Obamacare in America,” said Pence. “Beyond the statistics, beyond all of the, you know, posturing in Washington, D.C., these people are examples of what everyday Americans are facing each and every day.”
The last member of the group introduced by Pence was Connie Mays of Ohio, who said her plan did not cover any of her area doctors.
“I think one of the things that keeps ringing in my mind that I heard over the last eight years was, ‘affordable health care for everyone.’ I want to know who ‘everyone’ is, because it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me and it isn’t my family, because they’re struggling too,” Mays said, her voice beginning to break. “So I’m begging you. Please, please, whatever it takes. We’ve got to get this fixed. It’s destroying people. It’s destroying me.”
Pence put his hand on Mays’ back and hugged her as she cried. He then thanked the group for “sharing your heart.”
“I promise you, the president and I … are not going to stop working until we get this thing done,” Pence said.
The vice president went on to suggest the group’s stories were evidence of the “broken promises of Obamacare.”
“Help is on the way. We’re going to keep working this. The United States Senate is working tirelessly as we’re speaking. We’re going to be working around the clock with members of the Senate,” Pence said.
Shortly after Pence’s event concluded, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report on the Senate health care bill. The office said it would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026. In response, the White House issued a statement accusing the CBO of having a “history of inaccuracy.”
“The CBO has consistently proven it cannot accurately predict how health care legislation will impact insurance coverage. This history of inaccuracy, as demonstrated by its flawed report on coverage, premiums and predicted deficit arising out of Obamacare, reminds us that its analysis must not be trusted blindly,” the White House statement said.
The White House similarly attacked the CBO after it released its report on the House Republican health care bill. At that time, Politifact rated the White House’s critique of the CBO’s record as “half true.”
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