Crowd gives Bilirakis an earful

A crowd — that sometimes became raucous — turned out to a listening session held by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis on the issue of health care reform.

Bilirakis billed the session as an opportunity to receive feedback and ideas from constituents on the future direction of the nation’s health care system, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

Many people brought signs to help communicate their views on the health care issue.
(B.C. Manion)

People filled every seat of the Pasco County Commission’s chambers at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey during the Feb. 11 session.

They stood in the back of the chamber, and along both walls, and the overflow spilled into government center’s lobby and down a hallway corridor.

The crowd was made up of men and women, of all ages and ethnicities. Some came in wheelchairs. Some used walkers or canes.

Some carried signs proclaiming such messages such as: “Repair, not repeal.” “The ACA is pro life” and “Health Care is a Human Right.”

Television reports on the event aired on local and national networks, and excerpts of speakers streamed on social media.

The vast majority of speakers protested repealing and replacing the ACA.

Speakers told Bilirakis that repealing the ACA will cause chaos.

Some told Bilirakis that keeping the ACA, for them, or their loved ones, is truly a matter of life or death.

The crowd jeered in reaction to comments by Bill Akins, secretary of the executive committee of the Republican Party of Pasco County, who said: “There is a provision in there (the ACA) that anyone over the age of 74 has to go before what is effectively a death panel.”

As the crowd booed and shouted “no,” Akins insisted he was right. “The provision is in there.”

As speakers took their turn at the microphone, some folks in the lobby occasionally chanted, “Medicare for all. Medicare for all.”

In response, one man counter-chanted: “Make someone else pay. Make someone else pay.”

One speaker told Bilirakis that the ACA had not really worked because it was too expensive, and another said he preferred keeping the government out of his back pocket.

But, most of the speakers, including Ivana Sheppard, a member of Action Together Tampa Bay, want to see Obamacare improved — not repealed and replaced.

“Your job as a congressman is to fix it,” Sheppard told Bilirakis.

Insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies should not be involved in reform efforts, she added. “Take their seat from the table. The insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies should not be at the table,” she said.

“We are actively searching for (U.S. Sen.) Marco Rubio,” Sheppard added.

Beverly Ledbetter, active in Pasco County Democratic politics, reminded Bilirakis: “Affordable health care is more than being able to go to the doctor. It’s peace of mind. It’s the ability to know that you can be treated when you have an illness.

“I taught at Pasco High School, and I would have students who would come in that would be very upset. When I talked to them, I found out that mom had Stage IV breast cancer, or dad had lung cancer … They had to balance between paying their mortgage or getting health care.

“In East Pasco County, we have a 33 percent poverty level. Having access to affordable health care is important. We need a commitment that these people are not going to be left behind. We need a commitment that you’re going to listen and you’re going to act on our behalf.

“We ask that you not make America sick again,” Ledbetter said.

Other speakers told Bilirakis that repealing the ACA will cause people with pre-existing conditions to lose their access to health care. They said medicines will be too expensive, and they said without subsidies, people won’t be able to afford insurance.

Two doctors told Bilirakis that the ACA has resulted in people getting medical treatment sooner, before their conditions worsened.

In response to comments about Medicare, Bilirakis assured the crowd that Medicare will stay the same.

“Medicare will not be affected. Medicare is the greatest program in the history of the United States, and we’re going to keep it,” Bilirakis said.

He also said he knows that health care reforms are needed.

“Premiums are very, very high. We have to fix that,” said.

He said that increased competition between pharmaceutical companies will reduce prescription drug prices.

As speakers continued to share their opinions and experiences, Bilirakis told them: “We are taking notes, and I know this is being recorded. So, I’m going to take all of these stories with me to Washington.”

Published February 15, 2017

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