It wasn’t quite a town hall meeting, but it wasn’t a duck-and-cover teleconference, either. Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Greeley on Tuesday night met with a small group of constituents in an invite-only, no-public-notice, no-press meeting in the far reaches of his district.
Indivisible Douglas County CD4, an anti-Trump group, sought the meeting with Buck at Castle Pines public library. Organizers said he agreed as long as there were no signs, video or audio taping and no press, the kind of controlled access that more and more members of Congress are seeking in these days of packed and heated town halls.
Last night, an “empty chair” town hall was held in Fort Collins, with the chair reserved for no-show Sen. Cory Gardner of Yuma, who has shunned opportunities to meet with constituents in public forums, choosing instead to hold telephone town halls or to meet with smaller groups and in rural communities where supporters outnumber his detractors.
And then there’s Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora, who, a day after ducking out of a contentious meeting with constituents, told The Colorado Independent he soon would hold a town hall in a larger setting. So far, he has instead scheduled telephone town halls in April.
While Buck’s staff said the meeting would be closed to the press, The Colorado Independent was not turned away and attended the nearly two-hour discussion during which Buck was repeatedly, but politely, challenged. Afterward, Buck told The Independent he would be taking the stories he heard back to Congress.
The audience of 30 people was almost exclusively made up of Democrats and independent voters who live in a small swath of Buck’s district that juts into an area south of metro Denver. Buck represents a “safe” Republican seat, winning his 2016 election by more than 30 points over his Democratic challenger.
Buck told the crowd he had expected to get some questions about immigration and refugee issues, but the audience was there to talk about one thing only: the Affordable Care Act and its planned repeal and replacement by Republicans in Congress.
Several at the meeting brought with them stories of how the ACA has saved the lives of their families, as well as their homes and in one poignant example, a marriage.
At the request of the organizers of the forum who said they wanted people to be able to “speak freely,” The Colorado Independent agreed not to use names of those who spoke.
One woman talked of how she and her husband contemplated a divorce, on paper, so that their son, who has a long-term form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, could go on Medicaid, as they were rapidly approaching the $1 million lifetime benefit under their private insurance. But then the Affordable Care Act kicked in and eliminated lifetime maximum benefits. Now the son has a job, can get his medication and is “a fully productive member of society. I haven’t slept since November 9,” the woman said. “My panic over losing my husband, even if just on paper, has kept me up every night.” The Affordable Care Act “saved my family, kept us together and has kept us as working, productive members of society,” she told Buck to audience applause.
Buck called her story “heartbreaking” and said it points to the need for a replacement plan that will maintain coverage for pre-existing conditions as well as continuing the ban on lifetime benefit limits.
Buck’s constituents also raised concerns about the impact of repeal on rural hospitals, which have been bolstered by Medicaid spending that covered previously-uninsured residents. Without it, a nurse told Buck, hospitals and taxpayers will be stuck paying for the cost of people receiving care from emergency rooms, and some hospitals, which are the largest employers in their communities, could close.
Buck replied that one solution is community-based health centers, which dot rural Colorado. He said people can walk into a center and be treated for zero cost. That reply drew a chorus of “that’s not free!”
Buck drew some of the strongest criticism of the evening when he said Republicans and conservatives believe that government isn’t equipped, efficient or effective in running a healthcare system. “You can’t have a non-competitive entity without driving down quality and driving up cost,” he insisted. Audience members immediately challenged him, pointing to Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration healthcare system.
Buck also was questioned when he claimed “able-bodied” people on Medicaid don’t work. “We have to find a way to cover everyone,” he said, but for those “who are able-bodied and unwilling to work, they have no constitutional right to food, housing or healthcare.”
One audience member challenged Buck to prove his statement. Buck responded by citing an example of people taking advantage of unemployment insurance. “People find it more beneficial economically, and perhaps that meets their lifestyle, to receive government benefits than to work,” he said.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, childless adults who make up to $16,105 per year are eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That would include millions of working poor in minimum wage jobs who don’t receive health insurance from their employers.
“You need to make policy based on data,” scolded one man. Buck replied with the old line about “lies, damn lies and statistics,” adding, “statistics either side uses I don’t find reliable.”
He also advocated for a free market solution to healthcare, saying that Republicans believe in the marketplace and believe they can encourage healthy behaviors.
“We cannot go backwards,” said a doctor in the audience. “We need more coverage and more affordable treatment, not less,” and to Buck’s assertion about free-market forces, she called it a “delusion.” The country’s healthcare system is “outdated, dysfunctional and doesn’t work for patients, healthcare providers or the economy.”
President Trump has said his administration plans to unveil a replacement plan next month, but Buck told the crowd that it could take several years to come up with a replacement. “We need to come to consensus on how much we’re willing to pay. We will leave some people behind, one way or another” either by charging too much or coming up with a plan that won’t cover everyone, he added.
He pleaded with the audience to remove from their minds the idea that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would happen before a replacement plan is in place.
The healthcare marketplace, insurance companies and employers will have a chance to adjust before the ACA is gone, he insisted. “The idea that anyone wants to disrupt the economy in that way isn’t true.”
Photo of U.S. Rep. Ken Buck courtesy of Buck’s congressional office