Just In Case, Health Advocates Return to Capitol Hill

Councilmember Corey Johnson being arrested after sitting-in at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on July 19. | OFFICE OF COUNCILMEMBER COREY JOHNSON

One day after efforts by the Trump administration and the US Senate’s GOP leadership to dismantle President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act collapsed, up to 500 activists descended on Senate offices demanding that Republicans work on “providing health care rather than taking it away.”

That’s how Eric Sawyer, the vice president of public affairs and policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, explained the efforts of his group and other health care advocates in Washington on July 19. In tandem with hundreds of others — including about 200 New Yorkers representing Housing Works, VOCAL-NY, Rise and Resist, Gays Against Guns, ACT UP, and Positive Women’s Network, as well — GMHC staff and clients staged sits-ins at the offices of the 49 GOP senators who had not yet rejected Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call for an outright repeal of Obamacare without putting forward any immediate replacement.

McConnell adopted that strategy on July 18, after it became clear the Republicans lacked the 50 votes needed to pass his Obamacare replacement bill. The repeal with no replacement option has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office as even worse than McConnell’s replacement bill, leaving 32 million more Americans uninsured by 2026, versus the 22 million who would be forced out of care under the measure just abandoned. Three Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — didn’t even need the CBO scoring to reject the outright repeal option, announcing their opposition just hours after McConnell signaled his intentions. The GOP leader plans a vote next week — one he seems destined to lose — to give his members the chance to show just how little they like Obamacare.

Though GOP assault on Obamacare appears dead, hundreds stage Senate sit-in, keeping pressure up

City Councilmember Corey Johnson, the out gay Health Committee chair, is unwilling to bet against McConnell’s ability to yet turn things around.

GMHC's Eric Sawyer being arrested on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. | COURTESY: BERLIN ROSE

“The fight isn’t over as we saw with the House, where Paul Ryan pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” Johnson said as he headed over to sit-in at McConnell’s office, where he was later arrested. “The fight has to continue until straight repeal and repeal and replace are both abandoned by the Republicans.”

As New York State’s only openly HIV-positive elected official, Johnson said he was in Washington as one of hundreds of activists with pre-existing conditions that would be penalized severely under all the Republican alternatives that have been discussed.

“So now we’re here to tell our stories and to fight back against any effort to curtail health care in this country,” he said.

Johnson said most of the protesters favor a single-payer approach that would truly deliver universal care, but he acknowledged that the only feasible next step as long as Republicans hold the Senate and House is a bipartisan effort to steady the insurance exchanges established under Obamacare. Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, a tough critic of Trump on his health care initiative, wrote about the need for that type of bipartisanship in a July 19 New York Times op-ed.

For his part, President Donald Trump, responding to the expected failure of a repeal-only vote, is not talking about any immediate fixes, telling reporters on Tuesday, “I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

Announcing that strategy out loud, however, may make it more likely that voters will come to see that the president does own any problems that become worse going forward.

The success health care advocates have enjoyed in mobilizing grassroots opposition to the Republican efforts on health care is striking. This week was the third time that GMHC and other New York AIDS advocates faced arrest in Washington this month. Two weeks ago, roughly 40 activists were arrested in Senate sit-ins, with that number roughly doubling the following week. According to the Capitol Police, 155 demonstrators were arrested on Wednesday.

Members of Rise and Resist and ACT UP outside David Koch’s Upper East Side home on July 6. | ANDY HUMM

Activists have also been at work in New York putting pressure on those calling for the ACA’s repeal. On July 6, dozens of protesters affiliated with Rise and Resist and ACT UP descended on the Park Avenue home of billionaire David Koch, who with his brother Charles, funds Americans for Prosperity, which since 2010 has supported Tea Party efforts to derail the Obama legislation.