Hostile Town Hall For Congressman Who Helped Save GOP Health Care Bill | KUOW News and Information

Hostile Town Hall For Congressman Who Helped Save GOP Health Care Bill

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 11, 2017 8:23 am

If the giant inflatable Trump chicken outside New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur's town hall didn't make it clear — or the group of people singing health care-themed protest songs; or the Affordable Care Act cemetery; or even the plane circling overhead trailing an anti-MacArthur message — an early moment in the Republican's constituent town hall provided a sign this was going to be a long, contentious night.

That's when several people in the Willingboro, N.J., crowd started to boo and jeer when MacArthur talked about his daughter, Grace, who died at age 11.

"Shame!" yelled one person. "We've heard this before," complained another.

Their complaint: that MacArthur was somehow exploiting the story of his daughter's illness as he leads the Republican push to repeal key aspects of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"I will say, shame on you right now, actually," MacArthur responded. "Don't tell me what I'm using. I'm going to tell you because this affects my perspective. It affects my perspective on this issue of health care."

The tense moment set the tone in a marathon town hall that lasted well past the length of time it takes many people to run actual marathons.

For nearly five hours, MacArthur faced hostile question after hostile question from a crowd eager to show its displeasure with Republicans' Obamacare repeal attempts, the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the lack of an independent commission investigating potential ties between President Trump's campaign and Russia.

"I must say, I have a great deal of admiration for your tolerance for masochism," constituent Ruth Gage noted somewhere around the three-hour mark. (Gage went on to needle MacArthur about the need for single-payer health insurance.)

Defending the Republican health care bill

The room was tense, especially on the topic of health care, because MacArthur authored the key amendment to the American Health Care Act that won enough support from House Republicans for the measure to pass on a razor-thin margin.

"This is your health care bill. It was dead in the water. It could have stayed dead in the water and now it's the MacArthur Amendment that brought this thing forward," said Derek Reichenbecher.

"What I'm worried about is, if I lose my job, I suddenly am no longer in the market, I'm no longer covered, my governor who is not a friend of people like me right now decides to opt out. What happens?"

MacArthur said repeatedly throughout the night that the House bill won't deny coverage or increase costs for people with pre-existing conditions, and that the changes that could steer people into high-risk pools only applied to a small segment of the population: buyers on the individual market who let their coverage lapse for two months or more.

"Look I hear the fear. I know it's real," he said, after one of many detailed, personal stories about health care battles and insurance woes. In this case, it was from a woman who relies on Medicaid, the federal-state program that helps pay for health care.

"And as I said, I think it's tremendous courage for you to come out and share that," MacArthur continued. "I am trying to save a system so it continues to help you. That's all I can tell you. I'm trying to make sure that Medicaid is strong enough to continue to help you."

But the crowd wasn't in the mood to hear MacArthur's arguments about how tort reform and other cost controls were needed to make health insurance more affordable. They viewed the House health care repeal as something that could take their coverage away. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated some 24 million people would lose coverage over the coming decade if an earlier version of the measure were to become law.

From health care to Russia

The second topic to dominate the evening: Russia. No one asked about anything other than those two issues for more than two hours.

Kimberly Stewart was one of the first people to ask about the FBI's probe into whether anyone on Trump's campaign colluded with Russian operatives. "We seem to be having a pattern that most people that are investigating it seem to be getting fired. Do you support an independent group investigating Russia's ties into the 2016 election?"

"No, not yet," MacArthur said, to more boos. He wants to see how the House, Senate and FBI investigations play out, and repeatedly argued that a special prosecutor would not be a "silver bullet" guaranteeing an independent probe.

"Folks, I didn't come here to defend our president tonight," MacArthur said at one point. "I came to answer your questions and tell you what I think and what I am doing."

At points MacArthur rolled with the hostility — he gave no visible reaction when one constituent stood within a few feet of him and yelled for nearly 10 minutes.

At other times, MacArthur was clearly frustrated. "Is this what you want in your country? You don't like what somebody says and they're an idiot and they're dishonest and they're a fraud?" he asked.

Increasingly, in all political quarters, it appears like that's the case.

NPR's Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voters and activists have been lashing out at members of Congress over health care for months now. Add the anger, particularly on the left, over the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey, and you get this scene that unfolded last night in the town of Willingboro, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH GAGE: I must say, I have a great deal of admiration for your tolerance for masochism.

MARTIN: That was Democrat Ruth Gage, who was at the town hall last night. For more than four hours, Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur was the one standing in the middle of that hostile town hall. The crowd went back and forth asking questions about Comey and health care, then Comey, then health care because MacArthur authored the key amendment that led to a House vote last week repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act. Derek Reichenbecher said he's worried he'll lose his insurance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEREK REICHENBECHER: This is your health care bill. It was dead in the water. It could have stayed dead in the water, and now, it's the MacArthur amendment that brought this thing forward.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow was in the back of the room for the town hall. He's on the line now. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What happened? What did you note last night during that scene?

DETROW: You know, there were about 300 people in the room, and the vast majority were angry about the health care repeal, angry about this Comey situation and the Russia investigation. And you got a sense that things were going to be really contentious early on in the night. And I want to walk you through that for a few minutes.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DETROW: Let's start when MacArthur talked about his daughter, Grace, who died at age 11. And the crowd responded by jeering and heckling him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM MACARTHUR: I will say shame on you right now, actually.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Let him speak.

MACARTHUR: Don't - don't tell me what I'm using.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Shame on you.

MACARTHUR: I'm going to tell you...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Shame on you.

MACARTHUR: ...Because this affects my perspective.

DETROW: Many in the crowd had their own perspectives, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOANNA ROBINSON: Without this Medicaid, I wouldn't be where I'm at today. I came back from the depths of hell.

DETROW: Joanna Robinson was one of many people who shared personal stories about how she depends on treatment protected by the Affordable Care Act. In her case, it's dealing with drug addiction that requires medicine, treatment and constant vigilance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBINSON: It's not easy to stay clean, and with the help that I received and Medicaid, it kept me clean for this long. What's going to happen to us if you cut this bill? What's going to happen with our recovery without it? It's jail, institution or death.

MACARTHUR: Look, I hear the fear. I know it's real. And as I said, I think it's tremendous courage for you to come out and share that. I am trying to save a system so it continues to help you. That's all I can tell you. I'm trying - I'm trying to make sure that Medicaid is strong enough to continue to help you.

DETROW: The night was dominated by two topics - health care and Russia. In fact, no one asked about anything else for more than two hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIMBERLY STEWART: We seem to have a pattern that most people who are investigating it seem to be getting fired.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Do you support an independent group investigating Russia's ties into the 2016 election?

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: Kimberly Stewart was referencing the firing of James Comey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACARTHUR: No, not yet, not yet.

(BOOING)

DETROW: MacArthur said he wants the House, Senate and FBI investigations to keep going, one of many answers over the course of the long night that didn't satisfy constituents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting) You, Mitch McConnell, how long? Open your eyes.

DETROW: At times, MacArthur ignored the heckles. Other times, he responded directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACARTHUR: You don't - you don't like what somebody says. Is this what you want in your country? You don't like what somebody says, and they're an idiot, and they're dishonest, and they're a fraud. I hear you, and I'm giving you my honest opinion, my honest opinion.

MARTIN: Oh, Scott, that is intense. And...

DETROW: Think about that for five hours.

MARTIN: Yeah. So was MacArthur just kind of standing there on his own? Was anyone in the room defending him?

DETROW: You know, not too many people. This is one of the more Democratic parts of his district, and that's something he pointed out. He pointed out he only got 12 percent of the vote in Willingboro. But he did have some backers in the room, including Loretta Hentz, who - she was pretty frustrated about the whole scene.

LORETTA HENTZ: We're constituents of, you know, Mr. MacArthur, and we've supported him in the past. And I wanted to come out and see him in a town hall meeting. I have to say that I've been a little bit taken back. It's such a hostile crowd. And I get irritated with some of the people because they wouldn't give him a chance to talk.

DETROW: You know, she wanted to hear what Congressman MacArthur had to say. She came to the meeting, and she felt like the people in the room didn't want to hear what he had to say. They just wanted to yell at him, and I can tell you that that did seem to be the case from a lot of people in the room. It was more about getting in his face and pushing back than having a conversation. And that's why MacArthur, I think, got frustrated at points.

MARTIN: So, as you mentioned, it was this pingponging between health care and the Russian investigation because that was top of mind for so many people. This had happened - the town hall happened right after James Comey was fired. Besides just venting, were they asking MacArthur to do anything specific on the Russian investigation?

DETROW: Yeah, they were. They wanted - many people there wanted what Democrats in Congress want - a special prosecutor to take over the FBI investigation and a special commission to take over these congressional investigations. MacArthur said he's skeptical of a special prosecutor. He said it's just not a silver bullet. He pointed out this is someone who would still need to be picked by the Justice Department, which, of course, Trump is in charge of. Macarthur said he wants to keep the House and Senate intelligence committee investigations going, see what they find. But, you know, that did not cut it with the crowd. Many people kept coming back to this. They said if James Comey being fired, if Michael Flynn being fired, if every other twist and turn hasn't convinced you that this needs to be taken more seriously, then what will?

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Hey, Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.