Fifty-eight people from the western reaches of the 10th Congressional District crowded into Rep. Barbara Comstock’s Sterling office Wednesday to ask the congresswoman to protect the Affordable Care Act—and their lives.
Republicans have begun the process of repealing the law known as Obamacare, and have promised to replace it. They have pledged to maintain some provisions of the ACA, such as preventing insurance companies from refusing coverage to patients with preexisting conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. President-elect Donald Trump last week said he wants a plan that provides everyone with coverage.
While Comstock (R-VA-10th) publically distanced herself from Trump during his presidential run, even called him to drop out of the race, she has opposed the ACA since its inception and called for a more affordable replacement.
“We appreciate that there are people who this has worked for, and what we’re saying is that we can still have flexible, portable plans that also work for you that don’t also disrupt the whole health care system,” Comstock said in an interview. She said she is aiming for a “patient-oriented, patient-focused system” that follows people when they change jobs.
“When you change jobs, you don’t lose your car insurance, right?” Comstock said. “So why would you lose your health insurance?”
But Comstock and her Republican colleagues have not yet provided any details on how they will replace the ACA, and the push to repeal Obamacare without a replacement ready has many people who have come to depend on the ACA nervous.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates 40,100 people in the 10th District have enrolled in Obamacare through the ACA marketplace.
‘She Can Lose Her Life’
Although Comstock was not in her Sterling office on Wednesday, her staff heard stories from people whose lives and lives of their family members have been saved by health care made possible through the Affordable Care Act.
One of those is 10-year-old Eden Reck.
Reck, of Lovettsville, has a genetic condition that results in a missing enzyme used to store sugars in her liver. She has to eat every two to three hours to keep her blood sugar from dropping so low she that she could have a seizure or die.
The condition comes with a host of difficult side effects. If she vomits, she has to go to the hospital. She has already been hospitalized 40 times in her life, including surgery when she was 7 years old to remove her appendix. She has a severe learning impairment. And she is being evaluated for another potentially life-threatening genetic condition, Ehlers-Danos syndrome, which affects connective tissues.
She had already been hospitalized several times before the Affordable Care Act was passed. Her mother, Erica Reck, said when ACA became law, it caused controversy among her family members, many of whom are politically conservative.
“I saw pros and cons of it, but at the same time, I recognized immediately what the pros for our family were,” Erica Reck said. “In my husband’s family, we have some very, very conservative members of our family, and we were very, very vocal about how positive this was going to be to our child, and they really didn’t have anything to say back to us.”
Without the ACA, which prohibits lifetime caps on insurance coverage, the family worries Eden is already approaching her lifetime cap—previously, around $1 million—even though she is only 10.
“We could end up, as a family of six—we have four children—we could end up with one of our children not having health insurance,” Erica Reck said. “They could deny coverage to one family because of the lifetime maximum.”
Erica’s husband and Eden’s father, Lucas Reck, said he was a lifetime Republican from a Republican family until just last year, when he switched to independent. He said repealing the ACA completely, instead of working across party lines to fix it, isn’t the right answer.
“There’s been more and more of a divide being drawn, and I think that’s where we’re having a lot of problems,” Reck said. “We’re not willing to work with each other. We’re not willing to say ‘yeah, you’re different than me, but let’s work together and get this stuff figured out.’ We just say ‘No, it’s called Obamacare, and because it’s affiliated with Obama, then it’s horrible.’”
Marge Landis’s daughter Robin, of Centreville, also suffers from a genetic condition that requires her to see a battery of specialists—a cardiologist, a pulmonologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist, an orthopedic specialist, and an ophthalmologist, among other doctors. Before the ACA, Landis said, there would have been no way for Robin to purchase health insurance as an adult.
“Robin is 14 years old and she is starting to think about her career choices,” Landis wrote to Comstock. “I know that you have hosted several events that encourage young girls in their careers, and I would ask you to consider this: How do you give career advice to a child who has to make her employment choices based on a dependence on employer-sponsored health insurance plans? Can she really ‘grow up to be anything she wants to be?’”
Erica Reck said even her daughter’s serious health problems are relatively mild for her condition.
“We consider ourselves to be lucky,” Reck said. “That’s what amazing. We really feel blessed, but at the same time we know that without the ACA, these protections, she can lose her life. And that’s scary.”
Beating Back Addiction
Others worry about losing provisions of the ACA that ensured health insurers would cover addiction and recovery treatments.
Years ago, before the ACA, Lisa Holliday was swept up in the heroin epidemic, one of Comstock’s signature issues. Holliday battled addiction, and without the ACA, she said she had the good fortune that her family could pay $20,000 for inpatient treatment.
Having been treated for addiction, she was labelled as having a pre-existing condition, and was uninsurable. She needed an emergency appendectomy, which cost her $21,000, and left the hospital only eight hours after her surgery.
“They told me not to go,” said Holliday, who lives in Boyce. “I said, ‘I can’t afford to say here.’ So I left, went home in agony, worst night of my life. And I still got a bill for $21,000.”
Holliday said her husband stayed up with her all night that night.
“I was in such agony, because you can’t manage the pain orally right after a major surgery like that, with oral medications,” Holliday said. “So I was passing out from the pain, and he stayed up with me all night. It was horrible. Horribly painful. But if I had stayed another four hours, I would have been billed another $10,000, approximately. So I left.”
Now, Holliday is an activist for sobriety, helping battle the crisis of addiction, and said she worries the threat of losing the coverage under the Affordable Care Act is already having impacts among people struggling with drug dependencies. She said it’s “a disaster for the war on addiction,” and that people who are considering treatment are shying away.
“They are now thinking, ‘maybe I better not do that, because I’ll get saddled with a preexisting condition if they repeal ACA, and I’ll never be insurable again.’ They’re scared. And they’re also dying of heroin overdoses all over our area,” she said.
Finding Common Ground
“Let’s step back, everyone take a deep breath, and work together on how we can make this work,” Comstock said in an interview.
But although Comstock’s staff asked that the discussion during Wednesday’s meeting be off the record, people who were in attendance said they left the meeting frustrated.
Ayala Sherbow openly describes herself as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” and said the meeting showed her there was little room for common ground and conversation. One of Comstock’s staff members, she said, rolled her eyes when Sherbow brought up a study that had been reported on by CNN.
“What upset me is that a nice percentage of mainstream America gets their news that way,” Sherbow said. “If we can’t have anything in common from which we can talk about facts, then how are we going to make any progress?”
The staff member apologized to Sherbow after the meeting, but without even a common base of facts to work from, Sherbow said, a conversation can’t begin. “So that eye roll was very telling to me about how far we have to go in order to even just find a space where we agree on basics, like up is up and down is down.”
Attendees also left feeling they had been given no answers. Some were outraged when they were handed a prepared statement from Comstock part way through the meeting. Sherbow said that was “just devastating.”
“It’s basically just bland rhetoric, it doesn’t speak to anything we said, and she wrote it before she even heard from us,” Sherbow said.
Many of the people at the meeting were part of a new organization: Indivisible Lovettsville 20180. Guided by a document written by former Capitol Hill staffers on how to best influence Congress, the organization is one of many popping up around the country seeking to influence national policy with local activism.
It’s not an apolitical organization—the guide’s website explicitly states it is “a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda.”
One of the Lovettsville group’s organizers, Kris Consaul, said the 2016 election was a wakeup call for her.
“I know for me personally, I had always kind of felt somebody else will do that, and somebody else will say that,” Consaul said. “Now I know to my bones it’s my turn, I must say it, I must do it, and I’m only sorry that I did not come to that realization much, much sooner.”s
Comstock has called for a dialogue about the ACA and its replacement.
“I think what both sides need to understand is not to impugn the motives of the other side,” Comstock said. “They need to understand those of us who are repealing and replacing want to have a health care system that is working for our friends, families and constituents.”
“We’re listening, we’re ready to engage in a conversation about a plan, but I can’t talk about data that I haven’t seen,” Consaul said. But she said her questions—especially about what the Republican replacement plan will be—have not been answered.
“The [Congressional Budget Office] has told us that 18 million people will lose coverage in the first year of repeal,” Consaul said. “If the Republican answer is ‘yes, but you’re not taking into consideration our plan,’ I can’t take it into consideration if I don’t know what it is.’”
“There were no answers,” said Kristen Swanson, another group organizer. “No details, no policies, no plan, no evidence of any plan. And that’s because there is no plan.”