Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are back in their home districts for a recess this week. After seeing the reception some of their colleagues got in previous town hall-style meetings following the election of Donald Trump, most House Republicans are skipping them.
But a handful are diving in headfirst.
On Monday night, a few days after voting in favor of the House bill to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Elise Stefanik, 32, from Northern New York, held a town hall at a public television station.
Stefanik is a moderate Republican in her second term. She’s also the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. After refusing for weeks to say how she planned to vote, she was one of a handful of last-minute “yes” votes for the GOP health care bill.
Also on Monday, the Washington Post reported that the crowd at Republican Rep. Rod Blum’s town hall in Iowa drowned the representative out as he tried to reassure them that “if you’re getting your insurance through the group health insurance, nothing changes.”
Back in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Stefanik got an earful about her “yes” vote from her constituents. Because of limits on space, 100 people chosen by lottery were allowed in for the taping. Many of those who weren’t selected — about 250 of Stefanik’s critics — protested outside.
“Shame. Shame. Shame,” they chanted. A few protesters were dressed as the angel of death, and they carried a fake coffin with a list of pre-existing conditions scrawled on it.
The protesters got there early to greet Stefanik, but the congresswoman arrived even earlier.
Stefanik welcomed the audience in the studio, saying she looked forward to “a respectful give and take.”
“I know there’s a lot of questions on people’s minds and many people particularly want to hear about health care. So I’m looking forward to answering those questions,” she said.
The room felt icy and tense. The event remained orderly — it was taped and livestreamed, which seemed to help keep a lid on things. Still, outrage kept rumbling to the surface.
When Stefanik answered one question about “why the rich are getting tax breaks” under the House Republicans’ health care bill, some in the crowd detected a dodge and they started heckling.
“It is true — Obamacare increased taxes on Americans across the board on cost of health care,” Stefanik said before the crowd interrupted. Moderator Thom Hallock asked them to quiet down.
“Our legislation repeals the Obamacare taxes, whether it’s the medical device tax, the tax on high quality health care plans. We repeal the tax, the health insurance tax. That will help lower costs,” she said.
“You didn’t answer the question,” someone called out.
No one other than Stefanik had anything good to say about the bill. Nina Matteau, a breast cancer survivor, said the GOP plan includes loopholes that threaten people with pre-existing conditions.
“Can you explain how this constitutes better health care at lower premiums as promised?” Matteau asked.
“There is language in the American Health Care Act that explicitly prohibits insurers from not accepting patients that have pre-existing conditions,” Stefanik said, pointing people to a House GOP website for the bill. “That was an important provision.”
The Republican plan does give insurance companies more flexibility when dealing with customers with pre-existing conditions. It also rolls back federal support for the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, something that also prompted jeers from the crowd.
The audience wasn’t completely critical — some applauded Stefanik for taking climate change seriously — but she didn’t win over the room. Several people on their way out said Stefanik wasn’t really listening, and her answers seemed canned.
Stefanik said she heard the frustration. She also said repealing Obamacare was one of her earliest campaign promises.
“I know there are certain areas where we’re going to disagree, but it’s my job to listen,” she said. “And I think I did that tonight.”