Sen. Cassidy's health care alternative jeered at town hall

May 31, 2017 - 6:09 pm

COVINGTON, La. (AP) -- Skeptics of Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy's alternative to the Affordable Care Act moaned and jeered at him during a town hall in Louisiana Wednesday, and when he said he's "neutral" on the Paris Accords to combat climate change, members of the audience groaned. One shouted, "Take a stand."

The Republican senator had his supporters among the more than 200 people who jammed a meeting hall in Covington, north of New Orleans. They applauded loudly when he said insurance premiums and deductibles for health insurance have skyrocketed for some under President Barack Obama's health care law.

But many of his constituents were doubtful that the replacement bill he is pushing will sufficiently protect Louisiana residents. "First do no harm," a New Orleans physician said as she questioned Cassidy, who also is a physician, referring to the doctors' traditional Hippocratic oath.

Outside, meanwhile, a few dozen people who couldn't get into the packed room chanted "Health care, not wealth care."

While the Senate considers what to do about the House-passed bill promoted by President Donald Trump as an "Obamacare" replacement, Cassidy has co-sponsored an alternative with Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

Their proposal would allow states to retain Obama's law. States that choose not to could automatically enroll people in low-cost, high-deductible plans covering extreme emergencies and generic drugs. Anyone seeking more coverage would have to buy more expensive policies. Money states would get under existing law could instead go to patients, in tax-advantaged health savings accounts to be used for care. States could also design their own programs, but would receive no federal payments if they did.

Cassidy has deep experience in health care - he worked for years in Louisiana's Charity hospital system. But he didn't sway Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, the New Orleans physician who questioned him during the meeting. She said afterward that she doesn't believe many states - including Louisiana - will provide for adequate coverage if the Cassidy-Collins plan passes.

The liberal activist group was among organizations that had encouraged participation in the town hall. Louisiana is usually a reliably conservative state, where Cassidy ousted three-term Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014. But Trump's presidency has energized liberal opposition.

Wednesday's forum was more sedate than a raucous one in February in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Cassidy read hand-written questions submitted by the audience and then invited follow-ups from those who submitted them, including his critics. While the crowd was vocally critical of some of his answers, there were no prolonged outbursts and Cassidy, who faced the opposition calmly, was rarely interrupted.

Asked whether he would support Trump if the president withdraws the United States from its commitments under the Paris Accords to combat climate change, Cassidy said he believes the nation is already increasingly using cleaner energy sources. His declared neutrality on the Paris agreement prompted groans from some in the crowd.

Cassidy also avoided saying whether or not he would vote against the House-passed American Health Care Act, although he did say that the bill fails to fulfill Trump's pledges of better coverage and lower costs.

Cassidy took questions for more than an hour, and then held a news conference for reporters, where he said the House bill, as written, won't come to a vote in the Senate.

"I always avoid answering questions on that which I know will never occur," he said.

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