U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio takes questions from the public during a town hall gathering at Lane Community College in Eugene Ore., on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (Collin Andrew/The Register-Guard via AP)
Photo: Collin Andrew/AP
Photo: Collin Andrew/AP

These angry voters are telling Republicans: Repeal health care law

"I know they're looking at those folks and worrying that it's like the tea partiers who kicked out Democrats," said Vanessa Fiori, 60, a Republican who is active in political circles in this Philadelphia suburb. "But they need to be listening to us, the people who voted for them, the people who went door to door for them. We're waiting."

With polls suggesting that the Affordable Care Act is more popular than it's ever been, Republicans who have long vowed to dismantle it find themselves in a tight spot. Lawmakers have struggled to agree on a fix and House leaders sent members back to their districts a week ago with talking points aimed at assuring worried voters that a replacement will improve U.S. health care.

But Democrats say otherwise and critics excoriated members of Congress at packed town halls from coast to coast, arguing that repeal will leave millions without health insurance. The debate presents a delicate dance for dozens of members, including Fiori's congressman, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a newly elected Republican just weeks into his first term.

President Donald Trump narrowly won this congressional district, but it also has the highest number of Affordable Care enrollees in the state: 33,100 people, according to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Like many members who elected to keep a low profile in their home states in recent days, Fitzpatrick celebrated a local Boy Scout pack's anniversary, talked opioid addiction with elected leaders and held a virtual town hall — but only via telephone.

Reflecting the swing nature of the district, Fitzpatrick was among just nine House Republicans to vote against the vehicle to repeat the health care law that cleared both chambers in January. He's positioned himself as an independent voice and told callers that he's taking a "very deliberative, very independent problem solving approach."

His office did not respond to requests for comment, but Fitzpatrick told callers on his telephone town hall that he's open to keeping "what's working" about the Affordable Care Act.

"The answer lies somewhere in the middle," Fitzpatrick said. He said there are "aspects" of the law he'd want to keep, including coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents' plans — provisions that many Republicans support keeping. He suggested Medicaid expansion has worked in some states, including Pennsylvania.

His position underscores the risk for Republicans in repealing the act, but it's infuriated voters like Fiori, who said she and a dozen friends have talked about finding someone to primary the congressman _ who is already a target of national Democrats because of the district's reputation for being neither solidly Republican nor Democratic.

Fitzpatrick's brother, Mike, who held the seat before him, lost the seat in 2006 to Democrat Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran. But Mike Fitzpatrick returned to office in 2010 amid a tea party wave buoyed partly by opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Now his brother holds the seat and finds himself neither embracing nor entirely rejecting the health care law.

"We feel cheated," Fiori said of her support for Fitzpatrick. "Republicans have been saying for years, 'We have a plan, we want to do this but we don't have a president.' Now there is a president. Where is the plan?"

Across the district in Pennsylvania, at a meeting of Republicans in Warminister, retiree Jack Diamond, 80, agreed with Fiori. He worries that by pushing repeal into late March or April, the Republican Party already has ceded ground it will not get back.

"The Republicans are a bunch of useless, gutless do-nothings," Diamond said. "They ought to be done with it. Take a page from Mr. Trump, do away with it."

Others are more willing to give the party more time.

"They've only been in power for a month!" Victoria Lewis, 76, said, interrupting Diamond. "Give them a chance. This is going to take them some time."

Still, some Republicans worry that by not moving immediately to repeal the health care law, Republicans are giving Democrats an opportunity to better organize.

At least one member of Congress suggested the protests will put the brakes on repeal.

"There are a, in my opinion, a significant number of congressmen who are being impacted by these kinds of protests and their spine is a little bit weak," Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. told the "The Morning Show with Toni & Gary" on Alabama radio. "And I don't know if we're going to be able to repeal Obamacare now because these folks who support Obamacare are very active, they're putting pressure on congressman and there's not a counter-effort to steel the spine of some of these congressmen in tossup districts around the country."

Brooks said he believes the "monstrosity needs to be repealed," but added, "in my judgment, we don't have the votes in Congress to pass a repeal bill, in part because of what these people are doing."

But others urge caution.

"You can't just pull the rug out from underneath all these people without a place for them," Jason Croley, 38, a Republican voter and vice chairman of the Warminister Board of Supervisors, said of those enrolled in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces. "I don't want to see the Republican Party repeat the same mistakes Democrats did and go fast and risk it not working. Make sure we are actually offering something better."

That said, Croley said Republicans are under pressure to deliver.

"Republicans are now in control of the Congress and the presidency," he said. "We cannot jeopardize this opportunity to stand up and deliver something better."

Republican voters like Pavel Repisky say they're waiting. Repisky, owner of a small paper company in Fitzpatrick's district, blames passage of the Affordable Care Act for forcing him to dismantle the health insurance group he had created for employees.

"Costs were skyrocketing and it was too complicated to keep an eye on," said Repisky. "They have a system that is supposed to work for everybody, but it does not."

Repisky said he wants lawmakers to work "as fast as they can" to dismantle the law and take the federal government out of the health care business. He says lawmakers should bring back high risk pools for the unhealthiest and force competition by publicizing prices and encouraging patients to shop for care.

"They are stalling and stalling and saying it's too complicated," he said of lawmakers. "They will cite so many reasons why it couldn't get done and we will not believe them."

Tim Worthington, who hosted a rally for Trump last October at his Newtown Athletic Club, backs Fitzpatrick's approach, counseling caution along with repeal.

"All these premiums and costs are going up, but I don't think the vast majority think we ought to let people get sick without coverage," he said.

Still, Worthington said he believes the health care law is onerous for employers and has stifled job creation. He said the mandate that all businesses with 50 or more full-time employees provide health insurance to nearly all their full-time employees, is among the reasons he keeps his employment ranks below 50. Instead, he hires legions of part-time workers.

"Over the summer we've got 500 people working here, but we still don't exceed 50," he said.

Local Democrats say opposition to Trump's election has bolstered their ranks, and they hope to harness it, in part to block repeal of the Affordable Care Act. At the first post-election meeting for the Buckingham Township Democrats, longtime members marveled at the number of fresh faces and noted they'd be fielding a full slate of candidates for county races that may have gone vacant in the past.

"Trump's election has woken people up," said Robin Robinson, who is running for a county seat. "They now know who their state representative is, they know who their member of Congress is and they want to hold them accountable."

That includes pressuring Fitzpatrick, whom Democratic activists worry will fall in line with his party and vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, despite his initial vote last month to slow-walk repeal.

Marijane Meckling, a retired teacher, recently delivered a stack of letters to Fitzpatrick's district office written by people who say they'd be hurt by repeal. To her surprise, Fitzpatrick met with them.

But she added, "We told him we hoped he would not repeal and of course he didn't say anything. They're panicking, but I don't know that it's going to be enough to change votes. They're under a lot of pressure from their voters."

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