A large crowd overwhelmingly supportive of keeping and improving Obamacare appeared en masse Saturday at a health care “listening session” hosted by a Republican Florida congressman who favors repealing and replacing it.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis was on the defensive at a Palm Harbor community center in northern Pinellas County, nestled in a precinct that overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump in November. Pinellas was one of just four of 67 Florida counties to back former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then support Trump in 2016.
For more than two hours, Bilirakis listened to stories from his constituents — young, old, black and white— who implored him to not repeal Obama’s signature federal health care law without having a replacement plan in place and in effect.
But the two hours of testimony did not sway Bilirakis’ opinion on repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“No, I think we need to repeal because we need to do it right and expand health care,” he told reporters after the meeting when asked if he had changed his mind. “It’s too expensive. The premiums are too high, the deductibles are too high.”
While he provided no details, Bilirakis said that he would work to ensure that the Republican replacement plan guarantees people with pre-existing coverage to have access to health insurance and that adult children be allowed to stay on their parents' policies until they are 26 years of age.
Black Lives Matter Tampa co-founder and chapter leader, Donna Davis, warned the Republican lawmakers that she would raise an “army of opposition against him if this shit doesn’t stop,” saying there was a willful disconnect between elected officials and their constituents on the Affordable Care Act.
Throughout the two-hour meeting, Bilirakis was routinely booed and jeered.
“Liberty and justice and freedom for all. is that what we’re here for?” 21-year-old St. Petersburg College student Evan Thornton said during his allotted time.
Diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome at 16, Thornton said that he fears for his life every day. “To take away the Affordable Care Act is taking away my freedom and justice. It’s taking away my life. You need to come up with a way to take out the kinks. I understand that but to take away the whole Affordable Care Act is not okay,” he said.
During the two-hours plus of testimony, Bilirakis heard from just three people who supported the repeal of the law, including Kristen Sedas’ who has worked for Bilirakis for nine years.
Sedas said she lost her longstanding health insurance plan after Obamacare and was required to enroll in the federal exchange. The result was higher copayments and less coverage.
A Tarpon Springs resident who supported repeal was 77-year-old Freril Haeussler, who also said Planned Parenthood clinics should be shuttered.
“Please vote against the ACA,” Hauessler said over the jeers and heckles."
The 12th congressional district is heavily Republican, with GOP registered voters outnumbering Democratic ones by about 60,000. The district includes Pasco and northern parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Last November, Trump carried Pinellas County over Democrat Hillary Clinton. In 2008 and 2012, Pinellas voters favored Obama.
Bilirakis easily defeated his Democratic challenger in 2016, capturing nearly 69 percent of the vote. He already has filed paperwork to run for Congress in 2018. He was first elected in 2006, succeeding his father, longtime Congressman Michael Bilirakis.
Last month, Bilirakis hailed passage of the budget resolution approved by the House and Senate to begin the process of repeal and replacing Obamacare.
“We can finally start the open and transparent process of repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he said at the time. “The people of Florida and our nation deserve a health care system that is high-quality, affordable, and puts patients back in control.”