The Republican healthcare plan took center stage in U.S. Congressman James Comer’s town hall teleconference on Friday in Paducah. Questions about his stance on funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, minimum wage and public broadcasting were also topics of discussion.
About 75 people came to the event, which was intended to be a live meeting, however Comer stayed in Washington due to the decision Thursday to delay the American Health Care Act vote to Friday in an attempt to shore up more support. [Note: This meeting was held before the House decided to withdraw the plan].
Despite not being present, some people in attendance felt it was better to have a teleconference than no meeting at all. During the meeting, Comer received praise for being generally more accessible than some of his congressional peers by being responsive to questions both in -person and via email and phone calls.
Republican Healthcare Plan
Comer favors repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and intended to vote in favor of the GOP measure that was withdrawn from a House vote Friday afternoon. “If this bill fails and the president walks away and everyone walks away from healthcare. I believe with all my heart that you’re going to lose your healthcare in a couple years," he said.
Some members of the audience expressed concern over the bill and cuts to Medicaid, describing personal experiences regarding health issues and family members with disabilities who may be affected by the plan. The proposal gives states Medicaid control through block grants. Comer argued that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare was unsustainable. He said 32% of Kentuckians are on Medicaid when it should be closer to 8 or 10%. He said if nothing is done about Obamacare it would collapse in Kentucky.
If the number stays up, he said, the government will cut reimbursements because there are too many people on Medicaid and the government can't afford it. “If it fails and if nothing’s done then the federal government is going to have to cut Medicaid because the money’s coming from somewhere."
“If you just said we’re going to take the government out of it and let the private sector go, which is what most of the people in business will say… That wouldn’t work because they wouldn’t want to insure you. They wouldn’t want to insure my father because he has prostate cancer. So there has to be government involvement. The problem is with Obamacare is there has been too much government involvement. Too many people have ended up on the Medicaid system. We have to restore the individual market and we have to help the small businesses," he said, noting businesses in communities like Paducah not hiring because of healthcare cost.
Citing one health insurer for most of the 1st District, he said the individual market has collapsed. The premium went up 47% this year, he said. Healthcare is always going to go up, he said, but healthcare can't continue to rise 20 to 50% a year. He said if someone didn't need certain mandates in a healthcare plans, they shouldn't have to pay for them and should be able to shop for a plan that works.
Comer said he wants to help people who are on disability to stay on Medicaid. "We're going to do everything we can to ensure that people who are on Medicaid that belong on Medicaid are always going to have quality healthcare and access to quality healthcare."
He said some on the far right want to eliminate the pre-existing condition clause. Comer disagrees with this idea and vowed to keep pre-existing condition clause “with every last breath I have." He said he wants his office to help anyone in the 1st District who has an issue with their healthcare.
Minimum Wage and Healthcare
Comer said minimum wage is not a living wage. He said businesses should pay healthcare for their employees. "If nothing is done for healthcare, if nothing is done to address healthcare then there are going to be cuts anyway," he said. Health savings accounts aren't realistic for low income people, he said, as they don't have the money to put in those accounts. "There's programs for the poor and Congress is always obsessed with giving tax cuts to the rich, but the people that take those in are the people that are struggling, barely making it playing by the rules and can't afford their healthcare. I'm very sensitive to that."
He said he wants to see small businesses provide healthcare for employees, even those making minimum wage. He said the answer to that is to get the individual market back and not rely on the government to provide universal healthcare.
Audience Impressions on the GOP healthcare plan
Jennifer Smith said she was "very strongly against" repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. “I’m a two time breast cancer survivor. The first time we lost all our savings and 401K. With the expected increase and expenses I won’t be able to afford access to healthcare. And my life very much depends on the protections of Obamacare. So I’m strongly against the repeal. I really don’t understand - our taxes pay for his healthcare and benefits and how he feels comfortable denying access to healthcare to his constituents.” -- Leslie McColgin said, “I need the protections. I’m 62 years old and I’m scared to death about what’s gonna happen because I could have another breast cancer diagnosis in the future.”
Jerry Sykes of Draffenville was concerned about people losing healthcare. “I think it’s a big deal and I’m not sure this is the way we want to go about it in this country. I’m a single payer person myself. I believe we should have healthcare for everyone in our country," he said. On the notion that Obamacare could collapse, he said, "I don’t see a mass of people in the streets telling me that they don’t have insurance that they can’t afford the insurance that the insurance they have is not good enough for them. Where are these people? I’m not saying that there aren’t people who have been hurt by the affordable care act. I know that. I’m sure there is… I hear more dissent about it than I do people who say I can’t afford the insurance anymore it hasn’t done anything for me and we need another way to go. And I think this is not the way they really want to go.”
Some people in the audience favored repealing and replacing Obamacare. A Paducah resident who asked to remain anonymous said he supports the effort. He felt Obamacare was 'unsupportable in the long term' and that while he hoped to learn more about the border wall with Mexico and trade issues, that focusing on healthcare should be the top priority.
A member of the audience from Henderson said his brother's healthcare premiums have doubled due to Obamacare and is struggling to provide food for his family. He feels there needs to be substantial changes made to the current Obamacare law.
Bill Bartleman is a McCracken County Commissioner and a 2016 Republican Delegate who supported President Trump. “I hope what they’re doing is the first step to improving it. I don’t understand all the technical aspects of it. I think we need to make a change on it. I hope it’s not another government giveaway program and they say it’s not… I think it’s a little bit misleading they talk about the high percentage of people who have healthcare. They have healthcare but the deductibles are so high that it doesn’t benefit them. I know people who have three and four thousand dollar deductibles and they can’t afford that. So we need a change to make it affordable and equal for everyone.”
Environmental Protection Agency
President Donald Trump’s proposed 31 percent to the Environmental Protection Agency. Comer said he considers himself a ‘conservationist’ and said EPA needs to test for clean water and penalize polluters. He said Congress is reviewing every EPA regulation and the ones that are needed will stay in place. Some of the bureaucracy has become burdensome, he said.
“There are people that are polluting the streams and those are bad actors and they will continue to be fined even with the proposed cuts to the EPA," he said. "There's still going to be an EPA and it will still be a big agency... EPA will still be regulating the water, they'll still be testing the water and doing spot checks with the municipalities to make sure that we have clean water and we don't have lead or any other type of chemical or poison in the water."
Comer said he loves the land and as a farmer wants to be able to pass his land down to the next generation.
However, Comer said ‘regulatory burdens’ on the coal and agriculture industries should be reviewed. One area includes language in the Stream Protection Act and the Clean Water Act defined what a stream was, he said. "My definition of a stream is the Ohio River, the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River and any spring that continuously flows that goes into those rivers. That's a stream. But their definition of a stream was a ditch or anything else big with rain six inches all at once with water in it one day and there's not water in it again ever and that's a stream," he said it was a side-door to keep people from mining coal and farmers from plowing grounds.
He said he enjoys fishing and eats fish out of creeks, doesn't want to kayak in raw sewage. He said if a coal company pollutes the streams they should be fined and held accountable.
He said the EPA should not be regulating dust on farms, in response to a farmer who said there are too many burdens on farmers. Comer said he wants the coal companies to prevent the coal companies from polluting, not penalizing farmers kicking up dust on the roads with their combines. Wants the EPA to prevent people from polluting streams instead.
Other Proposed Cuts
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for numerous cuts to domestic programs including several that affect services Kentucky’s first district like LIHEAP, TRIO, Meals on Wheels, a senior jobs training program, Essential Air Service, weatherization services for low-income individuals and public broadcasting. Some members of the audience hoped to glean insight into where Comer stands on these things.
“I’m a constituent man I don’t owe the Republican party a thing. I say that three times a day. I’m a constituent man. I don’t owe the Democratic party a thing. I want to go and represent my people," Comer said.
Comer said the proposed budget is not what the end budget will be. He said Meals on Wheels is "very important" and would try to restore funding for that service. He said without Essential Air Service, Barkley Regional would not be able to offer commercial flights and is supportive of that service.
When asked about support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Comer said he recognizes that the service informs rural regions like west Kentucky. "I 100% support funding for National Public Radio," Comer said. "I listen to public radio all the time... I listen to Western Kentucky University Public Radio. I get up early and it's the only station that reports news, real news, in my area on the radio," he said to applause. "I'm a big fan of public radio."
Comer said he had to look further into proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts as well as science and medical research funding before forming a position on these issues.
A topic that didn't come up is funding for TRIO, a federal outreach program that helps people from disadvantage backgrounds gain higher education. Dr. Doris Clark Sarr is Director of the Math and Science Program, Educational Opportunity and Talent Search Programs at Murray State. She said the 10% proposed cut would affect more than 92,000 students across the nation. She said Kentucky's 1st District receives $3 million to serve students and adults reaching close to 3,000 students at MSU. “Education is the key. That’s the foundation of our country. To better our citizens and to give them better opportunity for life. They need these services," Sarr said.
Next Town Hall
Comer's next town hall is April 10 in Campbellsville, Franklin and Hopkinsville. He said he also plans to add a stop to Murray at some point in the future.