Think back, if you can, to January 2017. Congress was sworn in promising a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) ready for the President’s signature by January 20th. Before that date, estimates had it February 20th, and before long estimates stopped coming. We’ve since had the Women’s March, Climate March, Tax March, and all manner of protests and rallies, and yet: no bill.
When Secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services Tom Price came to speak behind closed doors at our State Capitol in early May, a journalist was arrested for asking him a question one too many times. Clearly, our protest occurring a few feet away was less a threat than questions to which there are no good answers. Still no bill to sign.
We organized a bus trip to DC where a couple of dozen people would tell their health care stories and air their concerns about repeal with Senators Manchin and Capito. The Rev. Janice Hill, approaching Senator Capito with her phone, asked Senator Capito to look at a picture of her daughter. Displaying first a picture of her healthy, then a second from her time being treated for cancer. “She would not be alive today if it wasn’t for the ACA. With the cap if she ever lost her insurance,” she told the Senator. Somehow, Senator Capito remained undecided. Still no bill.
When it really finally actually looked like the Senate would pass repeal–and our Senator Capito couldn’t decide between the lives and health of her constituents and the chance to sit at the cool kids table during GOP caucus lunches–we pulled together our growing grassroots coalition to throw a massive rally. Before we knew it, we had Senator Bernie Sanders on the way, and a 60’s style sit-in in the works. Senator Capito went to great pains to assure us her constituents voices weren’t a factor in the failure of this round of repeal, just a mere coincidence. It was the end of June, and still there was still no bill to sign.
Eventually, we found ourselves hosting a 48-hour vigil across the street from the Senator’s offices as we awaited the vote. Sometime around 1:30am on a deserted downtown Charleston street corner, a half dozen dedicated volunteers and myself huddled around the glow of a smartphone waiting to learn the fate of millions. We were deeply disappointed, but not at all surprised, when Senator Capito again voted to take medicine from hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. Then, already becoming resigned to the worst outcome becoming reality, much to everyone’s surprise Senator John McCain cast the vote that doomed repeal once again. No bill to sign.
Finally, we find ourselves here at the beginning of September. The Congress hasn’t accomplished any major legislation, much less health care repeal, and it is all because we worked hard, had patience, and above all persisted through all the attacks coming our way.
On January 1st it seemed inevitable that we would see the ACA repealed within months, if not weeks. Today, the public has little to no appetite for another attempt at repeal, and the Congress knows it. Health care as a right has entered the discussion, and grassroots groups around the country are growing in size and influence. We should be proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, for it’s only the beginning of what is possible.
That said, this fight is far from over, it has simply entered a new phase. Republican leadership in Congress have proposed budgets in the works right now set to cut hundreds of billions from Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and other vital programs in order to pay for an enormous tax giveaway for Wall Street and the Billionaire class. We will have to continue our fight, and continue to persist, but look at what you’ve accomplished! If I was told we could hold off repeal this long back in January I’d said it was impossible. But that’s the way of impossible things: they are only impossible until they happen.