The mass of people stretched into the grass outside the community center in western Kansas where U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran laid out his objections to the Republican-crafted health care plan Thursday.
The room at the McKenna Youth and Activity Center was meant to house 65 people but roughly 150 showed up for the town hall in Palco, Kan., population less than 300.
Moran, a Kansas Republican, has emerged as one of the key swing votes in the fight over health care.
He warned that the current Senate bill, which slashes Medicaid funding, would harm rural hospitals and endanger the state’s elderly and disabled populations.
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“I’m elected as a Republican but I’m a member of a minority. And that minority is Kansas. That minority is rural,” said Moran, who grew up in the nearby town of Plainville and won 87 percent of the vote in Rooks County in November’s election.
“I understand the value of a hospital in your community, a physician in your town, a pharmacy on main street,” Moran said.
Moran, who has consistently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in recent years, said Congress faces the difficult task of making sure that people helped by the ACA aren’t hurt as lawmakers look to fix its problems.
It’s “almost impossible to try to solve when you’re trying to do it with 51 votes in the United States Senate, in which there is not significant consensus on what the final result ought to be,” he said.
The Senate bill would cost 120,000 Kansans and 300,000 Missourians their health coverage in five years, according to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is based in Princeton, N.J.
Moran would not disclose details about his conversations with Senate leadership and did not propose a specific alternative to the current Senate bill. He promised a woman in a wheelchair in the crowd that he would not support anything that would cause her prescription drug costs to go up.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas defended the progress that has been made on the Republican bill.
The bill “helps low-income Kansans that have fallen between the cracks in the Obamacare Medicaid glitch to afford care for the first time,” he said in a statement. “Obamacare has cost Kansans their money and their choices in health care. I am certainly open to ways (the bill) can be improved, but keeping Obamacare as is — is not an option.”
Activists from the Kansas City suburbs made the more than four-hour drive to press Moran on the bill. And a throng of reporters from national and international media outlets flocked to the small town to hear the Republican voice his frustrations with the GOP leadership’s approach to health care.
“When I was a student at Plainville High School a trip to Palco was a big deal and I didn’t expect to be greeted by anyone except the folks at the cafe and the doughnut shop,” Moran joked about the media attention.
But the crowd also included dozens of people from Palco and surrounding communities, many of whom Moran knew by name, who came out to urge the Republican to remain resolute in his opposition to the bill.
“I knew Sen. Moran’s daughters before I knew him,” said Bob Cox, 73, of Hays, who had been the Moran family’s pediatrician.
“We really support military to protect us from external threat, but we don’t really look at the internal threat from injury and disease and fund it the same way,” Cox said.
Jeff Zamrzla, a 59-year-old veteran from Salina, pressed Moran on why Congress does not pursue a “Medicare for All” plan.
“It would work. … The system’s already in place,” said Zamrzla, who noted that his cousin works in Moran’s Wichita office.
Moran said the federal government needs to ensure the stability of Medicaid and Medicare for the programs’ current beneficiaries before expanding the federal health program.
Eleanor McMindes, an 86-year-old retired teacher from Hays, said she’s known the Moran family for decades. She said the bill’s impact on rural hospitals, which are already struggling, is a major concern.
“In western Kansas we have a lot of hospitals that cannot even afford to have a doctor on duty. Our doctors from Hays go out there like a day at a time,” she said.
McMindes, who volunteers for the AARP, recalled that a friend had a stroke and was rushed to a hospital in western Kansas.
“There was no doctor there. They took him to another hospital and there was no doctor there,” she said.
Armin Kelly, a 70-year-old retired veterinarian from Plainville, said the GOP bill takes money away from people who need it to pay for a tax cut. Kelly said he knew Moran’s parents well and traced his opposition to the bill partly to his upbringing.
“They’re salt-of-the-earth-type people and that puts Jerry in a difficult position,” he said. “You know, he’s intelligent. He’s informed. He’s a very nice man and so now, he’s a Republican, which puts him in a difficult position.”
Former state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Palco Republican who now works as a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, contended that the crowd was not representative of the small town’s voters.
“The pro-life question got shouted down in Palco, Kansas. I mean, come on,” Couture-Lovelady said, noting how a college student’s question about abortion inspired opposition from Planned Parenthood activists who had commuted to the event from the Kansas City area.
And while opponents to the GOP bill made up the crowd’s majority there were several attendees who wanted to see the senator support a repeal bill eventually, including Moran’s former college roommate, Dan Steeples.
“Under Obamacare my health premiums have more than tripled,” said Steeples, a 62-year-old Palco resident who has known Moran since the sixth grade.
“You can’t just repeal something without a replacement, and I don’t know that we have a really good replacement ready to go, but I would like to see it repealed.”
Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.