Graham-Cassidy Health Care Hearing Starts With Eruption Of Protests
Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., are defending their namesake health care bill this afternoon during an emotional hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
The hearing was immediately interrupted by protesters chanting, "No cuts to Medicaid. Save our liberty."
Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, suspended the hearing for about 15 minutes while the demonstrators — some in wheelchairs — were dragged from the room.
"If the hearing is going to devolve into a sideshow or a forum for simply putting partisan points on the board, there's absolutely no reason for us to be here," Hatch said.
The bill's authors have made changes to the legislation in hopes of winning over holdouts. But it appears they may still fall short of the 50 votes needed — along with the vice president as tie-breaker — to pass the bill. And Senate Republicans are facing a Saturday deadline to act on the legislation under special rules designed to foil a Democratic filibuster.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., confirmed Monday morning that despite the last-minute changes, he's still a "no" vote. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is also on record in opposition, so Republicans can't afford to lose anyone else. Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have also expressed reservations. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is undecided but voted against other repeal measures earlier this summer. Some of the last-minute changes to the bill include extra money for Alaska, Maine, Kentucky, Arizona and Texas.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the committee, complained that Republicans are trying to push through an inadequate bill to beat the Saturday deadline.
"Nobody has got to buy a lemon just because it's the last car on the lot," Wyden said.
Forecasters from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office are expected to release their analysis of the bill's budget impacts Monday afternoon. But the CBO did not have time to predict how the measure would affect the level of insurance coverage. CBO forecasts of a spike in the number of uninsured people was a factor in the defeat of earlier Obamacare repeal efforts. Researchers at the Brookings Institution predict the Graham-Cassidy bill would leave 32 million more Americans without health insurance by 2027.
The bill would eliminate federally financed subsidies for people buying insurance on the individual market as well as the Medicaid expansion. Some of that federal money would be repackaged as "block grants" for the states.
"My goal is to get the money and power out of Washington, closer to where people live, so they'll have a voice about the most important thing in their life." Graham said.
The bill would also make major changes to traditional Medicaid, capping the federal government's contribution. Over time, federal expenditures on Medicaid could grow more slowly than health care costs, shifting responsibility for those bills to state governments or patients themselves.
Graham argued that unless Congress is able to put the brakes on health care spending, it will consume an ever-growing portion of the federal budget.
The acting secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services said she welcomes flexibility, but not if it comes with a smaller budget.
"Cutting billions of dollars from Medicaid and giving states reduced funding in the form of block grants — funding that goes away after seven years — is not the kind of flexibility that we're looking for," said Secretary Teresa Miller.
She added such cuts would force governors to make agonizing choices.
"Who should receive health care?" Miller asked. "A child born with a disability? A young adult struggling with an opioid addiction? A mom fighting breast cancer? A senior who's worked hard all his life and needs access to quality health care to age with dignity?"
The bill would eliminate the requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty. It would also allow states to ease restrictions on the insurance market, which critics say would lead to higher prices for customers with pre-existing medical conditions.
"This bill is an all-out assault on vital consumer protections," Wyden said. "It's going to make the health care that many people need unaffordable."
More than 200 protesters had lined up outside of the hearing room hours before it started — many arrived as early as 6 a.m.
"If Medicaid is cut so dramatically, it will force people into institutions," said Bruce Darling, an organizer from New York with the disability rights group ADAPT, ahead of the hearing. "For people with disabilities, Medicaid is our life and our liberty," he added.
NPR producer Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.