More than 200 people showed up for a town hall meeting on the future of the Affordable Care Act at Harford Community College Tuesday evening, but the one person who those in attendance needed to hear their concerns – U.S. Rep. Andy Harris – was not there.
"You work for us, we pay your salary, if that opportunity is afforded to you and your family members, why is that it's not afforded to us and our family members?" Belcamp resident Rita Hewitt, who is retired from the Army, said of the subsidized health insurance provided to members of Congress and their families.
The meeting, which was held in a Darlington Hall lecture hall that seats 180 people, was organized by Citizens for Health Care, a Harford County grassroots group set up to educate people about ACA benefits and what could happen if the act is repealed or replaced as desired by Congressional Republicans such as Harris.
Delane Lewis, of Citizens for Health Care, who moderated the meeting, said she had hand-delivered an invitation to Harris' staff, but he declined to come.
The congressman, whose First District includes northern and central Harford County, would have been on a five-person panel giving the audience information about the ACA and the potential impacts to the economy and people's health coverage if the law is repealed.
A card with the words "reserved for Andy Harris" written on it had been placed on one of the panel seats at the front of the room.
Lewis noted Harris had a recent town hall where constituents could ask questions by conference call – he called the Feb. 16 event the "Teletown Hall" on his Twitter feed – but she said people deserve to have face-to-face interaction with their congressman.
The audience was standing-room only in the lecture hall, and more people were outside the room in the hallway. The forum lasted approximately three hours.
More than 4,500 people participated in the Teletown Hall, plus Harris has hosted more than 60 in-person town halls during his time in office, Bryan Shuy, a spokesperson for Harris, noted in an email Wednesday morning .
The congressman plans to host more town halls once a replacement to the ACA is before Congress. Shuy reiterated a statement Harris made earlier this month to that effect.
"Unlike what happened in 2010 when the ACA was written behind closed doors, when its replacement is ready to come before Congress this year, I intend to hold town hall meetings to discuss our proposal to improve health care delivery in America," Harris stated.
An audio recording of the Teletown Hall is available online at https://vekeo.com/event/congressmanharris-30966.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which was championed by former President Barack Obama and is also known as ObamaCare, has been a deeply divisive piece of legislation since Obama began promoting it during his first term.
The act includes a requirement for Americans to purchase health insurance, if they do not get it through an employer or other federally-subsidized programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Young people can stay on their parents' health plans until age 26; the federal government has provided billions of dollars to the states, including Maryland, to fund an expansion of Medicaid coverage for low-income residents; people can purchase individual plans and take advantage of tax credits and federal subsidies to get lower premiums, plus people who have pre-existing health conditions cannot be denied coverage.
"Coverage prevents the burden of financially devastating medical care," said panelist Sue Ehlenberger, a lead navigator with Maryland Health Connection, the state's health insurance marketplace.
Ehlenberger works for Seedco, a "connector entity" for Maryland Health Connection that serves residents of Harford County and the Upper Eastern Shore.
She stressed later that she was not speaking as a representative of Maryland Health Connection or Seedco, but as a private citizen "sharing my knowledge."
Other panelists included Jeananne Sciabarra, executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Health First, Katia Callan, a Towson-based psychotherapist who lives in Fallston, and Scot Hurley, of Havre de Grace-based Ashley Addiction Treatment. Hurley is the organization's major gifts officer, who specializes in development and communications.
He spoke about the deadly epidemic of heroin and opioid addiction that has gripped Harford County, as well as the rest of Maryland and the nation, in recent years, and how most people who could get inpatient treatment through Ashley before Obamacare were wealthy.
He praised the former patients who have become passionate donors, but he also noted the ACA has made it possible for people of lesser means to get treatment for addictions.
"There are people in every community, young adults who are dying every day, and they need help," he said. "Things will only become worse if the ACA is repealed or replaced with something less."
According to the Harford County Sheriff's Office, there already have been 12 fatal opioid overdoses in the county this year and 44 overdoses overall that were reported through the county 911 Center or local hospitals.
Callan talked about her clients who fear losing coverage for mental health treatment, which is available under the ACA.
"The current policies putting the ACA at risk will impact mental health across the country and across Maryland," she said.
Sciabarra said about half a million Marylanders have coverage through Obamacare, that the cost of providing hospital care to people without insurance declined by $311 million from 2013 to 2015, plus tens of thousands of elderly and disabled Medicare recipients can get prescription drug coverage.
She acknowledged complaints that many Americans have about Obamacare's shortcomings.
"There are plenty of things that can be done to make markets more stable, make premiums more affordable across the board," she said.
The audience also heard from two people who have coverage for themselves and their children through Obamacare.
Melony Dever, of Bel Air, said she has many chronic health issues, which have been passed to her five children. The family's health plan allows her to afford expensive medical equipment for her children, though.
"The ACA saved my life, and it continues to provide my children and myself with health care that dramatically increases our quality of life," she said.
Allison Galbraith, of Abingdon, had her 9-year-old son, Ben Atkins-Galbraith, with her, as she talked about how her individual ACA plan has allowed her to start her own business, be at home when her child gets on and off the school bus and afford treatment for women's health issues such as postpartum depression.
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"This program has helped small businesses, it's helped families, it's helped young women, and I'm not going to get an answer out of our congressman as to what's going to be done to maintain that," she said.