Government & Politics

Moran weighs in on health care bill at rowdy town hall in Lenexa

At a rowdy town hall event Monday morning in Johnson County, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said he may vote for a Republican-backed health care plan even if there are no open hearings.

Moran, a Kansas Republican, told a crowd of 500 people at the Lenexa Conference Center that he would have voted against the House’s version of the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and repeatedly called for open hearings on the Senate version.

He bemoaned the fact that the bill was being crafted in closed-room meetings, but when asked to promise not to vote for the bill without open hearings, the senator said he would wait until he sees the bill before determining how to vote.

“I want to see what the health care bill is. I wish it was being addressed in a way different than it is, but let’s see what the outcome is,” he said.

Moran’s town hall comes after weeks of protests at congressional offices in the Kansas City area following the U.S. House’s passage of a health care bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would leave 23 million more people uninsured by 2026. A video clip of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, demanding a hearing on the Senate version of the bill before it goes up for a vote was widely spread on social media last week.

Moran said that he has seen “nothing in writing” about the Senate bill, but that his impression is it will differ from the House version.

Aaron Kivett, a 37-year-old Overland Park resident who asked Moran to promise to vote against the bill if there aren’t open hearings, said he was disappointed with the senator’s answers. He said Moran spoke about the importance of hearings but appeared unwilling to back that up with actions.

“His power as a U.S. senator is his vote, and throughout the discussion he seemed like this helpless bystander,” said Kivett, who works for a software company and gets his insurance through his employer. “And if you’re unwilling to stand behind those statements with that vote, it’s completely meaningless.”

Moran said that his decision to hold the town hall early Monday morning — a time that many attendees complained conflicted with their work schedules — was to ensure that constituents in the state’s most populous county would have a chance to weigh in before the Senate casts a vote on the health care bill. Moran boarded a flight to Washington, D.C., immediately after leaving the town hall. A vote could take place within the next month.

Moran said he did not consider health care a right analogous to free speech, but he does think society has a moral obligation to ensure access to health care.

“This is a very personal issue for many, many Kansans,” Moran said. “It’s unlike any issue I’ve dealt with as a member of Congress.”

Moran told the crowd that the bill would ensure coverage for as many people with pre-existing conditions as the current law.

“Crap. That’s crap!” Laurie Bezinque, a 62-year-old retiree from Olathe, yelled out in response.

“I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in September. I have wonderful Obamacare coverage,” she said when asked about her outburst. “I’ve had nine treatments so far, and if I lose my coverage, I just need to hope that I can make it two years so that I can get on Medicare and get coverage again.”

Bezinque’s insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, announced plans last month to pull out of the Affordable Care Act exchange that covers Johnson County, which she blamed on the uncertainty created by Republicans’ repeal efforts.

Bezinque, a registered Democrat, said she has voted for Moran in the past and has reached out to his office.

“I’ve talked to him and his staff and let them know what I think. And he is a moderate, so I have hope that he’s going to listen to us and vote against Trumpcare,” she said.

Moran has voted with President Donald Trump 100 percent of the time since the inauguration, according to a vote tracker from the website FiveThirtyEight.

Phyllis Greenquist, a 51-year-old Olathe resident, has a genetic disorder and has to use a breathing tube. Greenquist, who receives Social Security disability benefits, said she’s worried about the impact the bill will have for people receiving disability coverage through the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“They’re changing the health care stuff so hard that I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of people who die,” she said.

When Moran contended that the Affordable Care Act had hurt rural hospitals, the crowd began to chant, “Brownback! Brownback!” in reference to Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill to expand Medicaid.

Moran attempted to make his way through a bowl of submitted questions during the hourlong event, but he faced a barrage of questions yelled out by members of the audience on a range of topics. His answers at times inspired standing ovations and at other times hisses and boos.

One man called out at Moran about whether he regretted his vote for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and whether he would vote for the former Alabama senator again if he had another chance. Sessions has come under scrutiny about meetings with the Russian ambassador and his role in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Moran said that he would not rescind his support for Sessions until he knows what the facts are.

Asked to clarify his comments, Moran said, “I’m awaiting the outcome of the special counsel and their report with what has gone on with Russia, and therefore Sen. Sessions is entitled to the factual findings of this counsel.”

He added that he “generally has made a practice of not outlining any votes that I regret.”

Moran defended his vote for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos even though he said she performed terribly in her public hearings. Moran said he was swayed by a private meeting with DeVos before the confirmation, but repeatedly asserted his opposition to school vouchers, something DeVos supports, on the grounds that vouchers would deplete resources from rural public schools.

Gil Zemansky, a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Lawrence, said that he has not voted for Moran in the past, but that he was impressed with the senator’s willingness to hear out his frustrated constituents, noting that other lawmakers from the region have not done the same thing in recent months.

“For coming into what to him would be a hostile crowd, I think he handled himself reasonably well. And I appreciate that,” Zemansky said.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ office did not immediately respond to a question about the next time the Kansas Republican planned to hold a town hall in the Kansas City area.

Moran joked that he needed to choose his words every carefully in front of the crowd, but he also said that he respected the crowd’s frustration.

“Americans should be upset. Lots of things to be upset about,” he said.