WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivers remarks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol after President Trump’s healthcare bill was pulled from the floor of the House of Representatives. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Photo: Win McNamee
Photo: Win McNamee

In Tom Price’s backyard, a deep divide over health overhaul

The doomed Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act could well prove the defining debate of the 2018 midterm elections, and the stark divide among candidates racing to represent a swath of suburban Atlanta offers an early glimpse of the electoral challenges facing conservatives.

In Georgia’s Sixth District, several of the 18 candidates demanded sweeping changes to the plan and applauded when it was pulled by House leaders minutes before a scheduled vote because of a staggering lack of support. Others running as Donald Trump loyalists say they would have voted for it in a flash and lamented its demise.

All the more remarkable is that the rift erupted in a conservative-leaning district long represented by Tom Price, Trump’s new health secretary and the point-man to implement any plan that made it through Congress.

“Healthcare is 17 percent of our economy. I’m OK with taking it slow to get it right, and I hope I get the chance to work on it,” said former state Sen. Judson Hill, a Marietta attorney who is one of the 11 Republicans in the race.

The April 18 special election is one of the first – and the most competitive – congressional contests since Trump’s election and could prove to be a measure of his popularity. And it will be a quick test of the impact of the dramatic failure of the GOP’s effort to deliver on its promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.

The district, which spans from east Cobb to north DeKalb, has been in GOP control for decades and sent Price back to Congress every two years by double-digit margins. But Trump’s 1-point victory in the district gives Democrats hope they can flip the seat.

Tom Price’s congressional seat is vacant since he accepted a position in the Trump administration.
Video: www.accessatlanta.com

‘Cut our nose off’

Jon Ossoff, the leading contender of the five Democrats in the race, sensed an opening in the GOP’s effort to dismantle the law. He blasted the scuttled House plan as a “raw deal” and stood beside a former director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to criticize its sharp cuts to a disease-fighting fund.

“Now, both parties should sit down and deliver more affordable health care choices to the American people without throwing millions off their insurance,” said Ossoff, a former Congressional aide. “We all know Obamacare needs work, but repeal makes no sense.”

But a handful of the candidates bet the appeal of erasing Obamacare and rolling back federal healthcare mandates will continue to resonate with a significant slice of the district’s Republican electorate. Bruce LeVell, a business owner who has tied his campaign to Trump, said he would have supported it without hesitation. He was disappointed that it didn’t pass.

“That shows you what happens when you have so many people in office who are not in touch with the people,” he said. “It wasn’t the greatest but it was a starting point. And we cut our nose off to spite our face.”

Candidates who supported the effort have backup from voters like Maureen Giannone, a Johns Creek professional organizer and diabetic who said Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare helped drive her vote for him in November. She said she worries about the long-term health costs of the program, which she fears are unsustainable without major revisions.

“It needs to be repealed and there needs to be a more narrow path for Obamacare if they continue down that path,” said Gionnone. “Our expenses enormously high, and there’s no getting around the need to cut it.”

‘Talkers and noisemakers’

Other candidates echoed conservatives in Washington who said the plan didn’t do enough to reduce the costs of premiums. Some argued the bill was moving too quickly through Congress.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again – unilaterally ramming through healthcare legislation was wrong when Democrats did it in 2010, and it’s the wrong approach for Republicans now,” said David Abroms, a first-time Republican candidate running as an outsider.

Two high-profile Republicans cast themselves as change agents for a gridlocked Washington. Former state Sen. Dan Moody criticized the “talkers and noisemakers in Congress who ran for the hills” rather than vote to repeal the measure.

And former Secretary of State Karen Handel had expressed reservations about the bill, but she blasted Republicans who campaigned on vows to repeal Obamacare for seven years and then failed to deliver.

“My hope is that Republicans will go back and resolve their differences quickly and move forward with repeal and replace,” said Handel. “The status quo - Obamacare - is not acceptable.”

Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek councilman, initially distanced himself from the plan by saying he wanted a more conservative option. After a raft of changes aimed at appealing to fiscal hard-liners, Gray said he would have voted for the measure.

The president says his healthcare plan failed because there wasn't enough support from Democrats.

Democrats see the failure of the bill as more ammunition for their bid to capture the longtime Republican seat.

Becky Arrington, a clinical hypnotherapist from east Cobb, said Trump’s victory already transformed her from an “asleep” Democrat to an activated one. The healthcare debate, she said, has further infuriated her.

“This is major,” said Arrington of the measure’s collapse. “Voters are waking up and saying this is not acceptable. Do I think it will be a defining factor? No I don’t, but it will be important.”

Trump and other Republicans are shifting the blame to Democrats who adopted President Barack Obama’s signature law, predicting the impact of its unraveling will bring the party down in 2018 midterms.

“This is on the Democrats,” said Ellen Diehl, a DeKalb County health insurance broker who is supporting LeVell’s campaign. “And voters won’t forget that this is on them.”

Georgia Democratic leaders have a ready response they hope will ring in voters’ ears through the special election and beyond.

“Does Obamacare need fixing? Absolutely,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes. “But it does not need destruction.”

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