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East Texas views mixed on GOP health bill

By Ken Hedler
March 19, 2017 at 11:56 p.m.

The Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act drew criticism from East Texans who fear it will leave more without coverage, while an insurance underwriter sees some good points and a tea party activist said he's in favor of a repeal with no replacement.

The proposed Republican plan, officially called the American Health Care Act, is not pleasing many people on either side of the political aisle, said Jeff Brown, business development director of Wellness Pointe, a nonprofit entity that operates primary-care clinics in the Longview area.

"Obviously, for the hardcore conservative, they are calling it 'Obamacare Light,'" he said. "For the liberal standpoint, the new plan looks like it could be a very scary proposition for the future of community health centers."

Brown said about 60 percent of the patients at Wellness Pointe are covered either under former President Barack Obama's signature health care act or Medicaid. Wellness Pointe has about 75,000 patient visits a year.

Vik Verma, who is covered under the Affordable Care Act and worked for its passage, said the GOP plan would have a devastating impact.

"Millions will lose health insurance," he said. "In addition, a lot of people who rely on subsidies, because of the way the bill is constructed, they will lose their financial help, which will make it harder to get health insurance."

Both Brown and Verma spoke before the Congressional Budget Office last week reported 14 million people would lose coverage next year under the Republican plan, with that number ballooning to 24 million by 2026.

Among other points, the GOP legislation would eliminate the mandate that nearly all Americans carry insurance or face fines. It would use tax credits to allow consumers to buy health coverage, expand health savings accounts, phase out an expansion of Medicaid, cap Medicaid's expansion in the future, end some requirements for health plans under Obama's law and scrap a number of taxes.

Hospital officials have concerns about the plan, too.

"As the AHCA is currently written, it does not maintain sufficient health care coverage for Americans, which will reduce access to care," Casey Robertson, chief executive officer at Longview Regional Medical Center, said in a statement. "We encourage our elected leaders in Congress to be thoughtful and focused in their deliberations to sustain coverage for Americans and improve our health care system."

Robertson's counterpart at Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center, Todd Hancock, was out of the office last week and not available for comment.

The GOP plan has some good points, according to Brenda Massey, an ACA-certified underwriter who is media chair for the East Texas Association of Health Care Underwriters.

"They are repealing the mandate," she said, referring to the law requiring Americans to carry insurance or face fines. "That is going to be good for a lot of people, but it could be bad news for the insurers. They might be losing some business."

While acknowledging CBO's prediction that some lower-income people would be hurt under the GOP plan, Massey said, "However, in reality, we do not know how it is going to shake out."

She said the bill, if passed, would encourage people to sign up for health savings accounts and said a refundable tax credit replaces the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Massey, a licensed insurance agent for 12 years, characterized the 14 million figure as an estimate.

"What they are leaving out is it is also going to reduce the federal deficit by billions of dollars, and it is going to help people who don't have insurance now get insurance," Massey said.

The Republican bill was getting no support from Jeremiah Hunter, an oil field worker who chairs We the People, Longview's tea party organization.

"What I do know so far is it is not an effort to repeal Obamacare," Hunter said. "My thoughts are pretty much with those who say it's RINOcare (Republican in Name Only) or 'Obamacare Light.' Every single Republican candidate ran on promising to repeal Obamacare."

He said he favors complete repeal and objects to any federal government role in health care. A free market economy bereft of federal involvement, Hunter said, would reduce health care costs.

"If you were between jobs and we have a true free market economy, most people would have much more savings and prices for everything would be lower," he said.



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