Supporters, protesters show up for testimony on health law in Gastonia

kgarloch@charlotteobserver.com jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

  • Hagan defends health care law

    Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan on Friday defended the Affordable Care Act despite its rocky roll-out.

    “I am unbelievably frustrated with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act,” she told reporters in Charlotte. “But I think we also have to look at the fact that we don’t want to go back” to a time such things as preexisting conditions weren’t covered.

    Hagan made her comments after an appearance at Charlotte’s Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, where she held a field hearing on classroom technology for a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

    After the nearly 90-minute hearing on technology, she answered two questions from reporters. She declined to respond to a question on whether she is confident that the problems will be fixed or whether they would hurt her and other Democrats in 2014.

    Jim Morrill

— Republican members of a Congressional oversight committee brought the first of several field hearings on the Affordable Care Act to North Carolina on Friday, but House Democrats on the committee stayed away, calling it “a destructive political exercise.”

The hearing attracted more than 200 people, including five who testified about their concerns over coverage mandates and higher premiums under the new law. There were also dozens who supported the law, including some who stayed outside in the Gaston County courthouse parking lot shouting, “These sham hearings waste our money.”

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened the meeting by expressing his disappointment that “the minority side chose not to be here today.”

About the same time, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, issued a statement criticizing the process.

“I welcome legitimate and responsible congressional oversight, but House Republicans have made clear that they have no interest in improving the Healthcare.gov website,” Cummings said.

Issa, a leading critic of the Obama administration, acknowledged that some people were unhappy about not being chosen to testify before the committee. But he invited them to send written comments to the committee.

Despite the disastrous rollout of the Healthcare.gov website and the recent cancellation of individual insurance policies that failed to meet the law’s benefit requirements, Issa said: “This issue is the law of the land… (but) we need to do better.”

He was joined on the dais by fellow Republican committee member Rep. Patrick McHenry of Cherryville and their guest, Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte. Pittenger is not on the committee but said his office continues to receive a barrage of calls and emails from people concerned about the health care law.

“I brought Congress to North Carolina to understand the real impact of Obamacare on real Americans,” McHenry said. He alluded to “the broken promises of this administration” and said the hearing would show “the consequences of this failed health-care reform.”

Promises not kept

The Affordable Care Act requires nearly all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine. The goal is to provide affordable insurance for more people, especially those who are currently uninsured. Federal premium subsidies are available for those who qualify based on household income.

According to the New York Times, the Issa committee field hearings are part of an organized Republican attack on the health law, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative initiative. The Times cited a memo distributed to House Republicans this week listing talking points, such as “Because of Obamacare, I Lost My Insurance.”

Friday’s hearing came a week after Obama apologized to the country for the malfunctioning federal website, the portal for consumers to enroll in insurance plans through the online marketplace. Administration officials say the website is working better now but still not performing as well as they had hoped. It’s uncertain if it will be fixed by the promised date of Nov. 30.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that only 26,794 people had managed to complete enrollment on the federal website.

On Friday, Issa’s committee heard complaints from two insurance agents, two businessmen and a Gaston County woman, who criticized Obama for falsely promising that Americans could keep their insurance if they liked what they had.

“We know now that the opposite was true,” said Sherry Overbey, 58, director of the Belmont Crisis Pregnancy Center. “Now you can call this deception, deceit, falsifying information, fabrication, whatever. But the bottom line is no matter what nicety you give it, a lie is a lie is a lie.”

She said the monthly premium for her family health insurance will increase from $395.60 to $713.11, more than “my mortgage and my second mortgage combined.” Overbey drew laughter when she added: “…Of course, I now have maternity coverage and I can get free birth control pills.”

Impact on jobs

Joel Long, president of GSM Services, a commercial roofing and HVAC company in Gastonia, said he employs 146 people and provides health insurance for which the company and employees share costs.

“We’re happy with this agreement,” Long said. But he said the plan will not be available next year. He said he was able to change his policy renewal date to December, thus avoiding a projected 30 percent premium increase if the plan had started in 2014.

In response to a question, Long said the health law will “have nothing but a negative impact” on his business. “There’s no way this can help us,” he said. “This will stifle my ability to create more jobs.”

Issa said he didn’t vote for the Affordable Care Act, but his state of California considered a similar insurance mandate under former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Issa closed the hearing by questioning whether the federal law could work better if it required new minimum benefits, such as maternity coverage only on plans for people who get premium subsidies and not for non-subsidized plans outside the federal marketplace.

“Did we over reach?” Issa asked. “And is that distortion of the market the reason we’re seeing these costs go up?”

Wanted to testify

Before testimony began, the committee’s chief clerk, Linda Good, instructed the audience not to disrupt the hearing because it was “not a public forum.” But Jennifer Moody, a member of the Lincoln County Democratic Women, stood to object. “This is a taxpayer-funded and a one-sided hearing that does not represent your employer. This is a sham.”

She left the meeting to join the outside demonstrators organized by Progress North Carolina, a liberal group that supports the health overhaul. Holding signs that said “Health care for everyone” and “Fix it, don’t just attack it,” the demonstrators included several who said they had asked to testify but were not invited.

Leslie Boyd of Asheville held a picture of her son, Mike Danforth, who died several years ago at 33. She said he was born with a birth defect that left him vulnerable to colon cancer. He couldn’t get insurance to cover needed colonoscopies because companies considered his a preexisting condition. “He died because he couldn’t get care,” said Boyd, 61.

Skip Edwards said he and his wife both have preexisting conditions and have been paying $1,300 a month for insurance coverage.

Recently, Edwards, 63, said he found out they could get a federal premium subsidy of $897 a month through the Affordable Care Act. Although he hasn’t yet selected a policy because the website isn’t working properly, he feels confident they’ll get an affordable one.

“I’m delighted to have this benefit,” said Edwards, from Asheville. “It’s going to have such a positive impact on our lives.”

In his written statement, Democrat Cummings said the title of Friday’s hearing – “Obamacare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums for Healthcare Coverage”– gives a false impression that Americans will face exorbitant prices for health insurance in the individual market.

But he cited a new report by Families USA which found nearly three-quarters of Americans in the individual market are eligible for financial assistance under the law.

Families USA also has reported that the number of people at risk of not keeping their current individual health insurance and who also will not be income-eligible for financial help to buy a new plan is less than 1 percent of the non-elderly population.

Garloch: 704-358-5078 Morrill: 704-358-5059

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