GREENFIELD — There are “glimmers of hope” that reform will come to the Affordable Care Act, Congressman Luke Messer says, and it will take a bipartisan approach to make it happen.
But as dozens gathered for a congressional field hearing in Greenfield Thursday morning to hear about the federal health-care law’s impact on schools and businesses, it seemed as though folks with concerns about the law were preaching to the choir.
Five Republican members of Congress came to the event held at Greenfield City Hall. While Democrats were invited, none attended.
It made for a morning of testimony from witnesses throughout the state explaining how the law hurts their schools and businesses; and lawmakers saying they want reform but expressing doubt about how to achieve it. A physician offered an alternate view, pointing out the law is helping millions of people who otherwise could not afford insurance.
The Republicans on the panel took pains to make sure the record reflected it was not just a GOP caucus session.
“This is not a Republican feel-good meeting,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., told the crowd. “The Democrats were invited to come also but chose not to come. This has got to be about a bipartisan solution because it affects every American citizen.”
Roe is chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.
A field hearing has the same rules as a committee hearing held in Washington, only it’s conducted in a local community. Greenfield was chosen for Thursday’s hearing because it is in Messer’s district. The freshman congressman has been a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare.
The crowd was standing-room only, bringing in local Republican party officials, city council members and many just eager to see how Congress works.
Eight witnesses from throughout the state were called to testify in front of the panel of lawmakers. From small-business owners to the president of Ivy Tech Community College, most raised concerns about the law’s mandate to provide insurance to employees – particularly part-time employees who work at least 30 hours a week. The presentations broke down along well-established lines in the ongoing debate: Businesses and schools are struggling to meet the requirements of the law, while many uninsured people are grateful to finally get coverage.
“Our employees love their jobs and love kids, and when they are told they can no longer contribute, it makes them very sad,” said Danny Tanoos, superintendent of Vigo County School Corporation in Terre Haute.
Tanoos held up pictures to the lawmakers, giving specific names and examples of employees in his school district who had their hours cut because the corporation couldn’t afford to provide insurance. When the hours of bus drivers for special-needs students were cut, for example, it made it hard on children with disabilities who need continuity.
Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, explained the hours of adjunct faculty had to be reduced. The only way for the institution to be able to afford insurance for everyone, he said, was to raise the cost of tuition for students – many of whom have a hard time affording college in the first place.
From the business sector, Daniel Wolfe of the Terre Haute-based Wolfe’s Auto Auctions, also shared his company’s experience of the financial hit from the Affordable Care Act.
“Is our health-care system in need of repair? In my opinion, yes. Is this the answer? In my opinion, no,” Wolfe said. “How do you cut medical and insurance costs without attacking the free-enterprise system on which America was founded? … If we are to spend money from an already overblown budget, why not spend it on incentives for the economy and job creation?”
Since Republicans are in the majority of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, they called six of the eight witnesses.
Dr. Robert Stone was one of the witnesses for the Democratic side, and he offered some perspective on the millions of uninsured people the law was designed to help. Many times, he said, people visit emergency rooms in need of X-rays for broken bones but say, “Doc, I can’t afford an X-ray. I don’t have any insurance.”
Stone addressed Messer specifically, saying he had made some misleading points in an op-ed piece earlier this week about Thursday’s hearing. While Messer pointed out that Hoosiers are seeing their premiums rise under the Affordable Care Act, Stone said insurance premiums had been rising much faster than wages or inflation for decades anyway.
“This is my family’s experience: My son, daughter and son-in-law are all covered under the Exchange. The cost of all three policies is less than what we paid for my son alone last year,” Stone said. “The elephant here, the real fear, is that as people come to appreciate the ACA, they are going to vote against politicians who are trying to take it away from them. I went to medical school to take care of people. We need to figure out how to take care of everyone. Everyone. It’s that simple.”
Messer replied to Stone by asking him a series of questions about whether he would support medical malpractice reform or cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse in the health-care system as a way of making health-care coverage affordable.
“Of course,” Stone replied.
“There’s much more that can be done,” Messer said.
Democrats received a two-week notice about the field hearing in Greenfield, but members of the committee could not attend the event because of prior engagements in their own districts, said Brian Levin, a Democratic press secretary for the committee.
Each Republican member at the hearing expressed regret that no Democratic members attended. The GOP-controlled House has passed several bills that would reform the ACA. The issue is getting the Democratic-controlled Senate to consider change.
House Resolution 2575, for example, changes the definition of full-time employees to 40 hours a week, which would address the concerns of school officials who cut the hours of support staff. Messer also filed legislation that would exempt schools from the provision.
“There’s no money tree here,” Messer said. “We all share the goal of trying to provide affordable healthcare to everyone. But at a time when schools are cash-strapped, it makes no sense to put this mandate on schools.”
Tanoos said he hoped by showing specific pictures and names of school employees in Vigo County the law impacted, he had made a difference.
“I think they get it. They understand it,” Tanoos said after the hearing. “But it needs to be a bipartisan issue.”