Congressman John Faso faced a skeptical, and at times hostile, audience on Monday, May 8 when he defended his vote for the American Health Care Act at a forum at the Kingston Library.
The Republican-sponsored AHCA passed the House of Representatives last week after House GOP leaders made a series of concessions to the conservative “Freedom Caucus” — including provisions that could allow insurance companies to charge much higher rates for older people or those with pre-existing conditions who purchase health insurance on the individual market. The bill would also scale back federal subsidies for expanded Medicaid coverage and, in New York State at least, shift Medicaid funding currently paid by county property taxpayers to the state. The legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president, would also result in huge tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
About 100 people attended the forum organized by the New York StateWide Senior Action Council. Attendance at the hour-long session was limited to those who signed up in advance; attendees were asked to write down their questions which were then vetted by StateWide staff before being presented to Faso.
The freshman congressman spent the first 30 minutes or so addressing a range of issues, from efforts to bring flavored milk back to school lunchrooms to his hoped-for renegotiation of funding mechanisms to keep Social Security solvent, before an increasingly restless crowd. While addressing questions about the AHCA, Faso defended his yes vote, saying that while there were aspects of the bill — like a one-year block on Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood — that he did not agree with, other provisions would help more American afford health insurance. Faso said rising premiums and declining participation in the “Obamacare” health insurance exchanges made the changes contained in the AHCA necessary.
Unlike some of the house’s most conservative members who favored a clean repeal of Obamacare and a return to a market-based healthcare sector, Faso seemed to embrace the role of government in providing health coverage, describing the AHCA as “building on” and improving positive aspects of its predecessor. Obamacare, he argued, had failed to meet a key goal: getting enough young, healthy people to sign up for insurance to defray the cost of insuring older and sicker Americans. Instead, Faso said, millions had elected to forgo health insurance entirely and pay tax penalties. The result, he said, was spiraling deductibles and premiums and fewer choices as wave after wave of insurers dropped out of the Obamacare health insurance marketplace. “It was clear to me that we couldn’t just sit there and let the current system unravel,” said Faso.
Faso also noted that New York law already protected people with pre-existing conditions and required insurers to provide the same “essential benefits” mandated by Obamacare. Moreover, he said, the provision to allow states to apply for waivers on pre-existing conditions and essential benefits would only apply to about 7 percent of the population who purchase insurance on the individual marketplace.
Faso touted the AHCA’s “invisible risk sharing,” which would provide federal subsidies to insurance companies to provide affordable insurance to those with pre-existing conditions in states that apply for the waiver. Faso added that he shared AHCA critics’ concerns that the $8 billion provided for the high-risk pools would be inadequate.
“I was really focused on trying to make sure that the funding was sufficient,” said Faso. “If it’s not, Congress has the ability to add funding.”
Medicaid costs an issue
For New Yorkers, one of the most immediate impacts of the proposed AHCA will be a phase-out of federal support for expanded Medicaid. Under Obamacare, the government picked up 90 percent of the cost of insuring single adults in states like New York that had expanded eligibility guidelines. With the federal subsidy, thousands of previously ineligible New Yorkers enrolled in Medicaid. If whatever version of the AHCA that makes it into law calls for that expansion to be rolled back, states with expanded Medicaid will have to either make up the difference out of their own budgets or tighten the eligibility guidelines. Faso defended the Medicaid rollback, saying that the federal subsidy was “not a sustainable cost” and arguing that placing more fiscal responsibility for the program in Albany would spur state officials to curb what he described as widespread fraud, waste and abuse.
Faso said that the same rationale guided his thinking on his singular contribution to the bill. The Faso-Collins Amendment to the AHCA (drafted by Faso and western New York Republican Chris Collins) would shift some $2.3 billion in Medicaid costs currently borne by the counties onto the state budget. The move would result in some $224 million in annual tax relief for property tax payers in his 19th Congressional District.
Faso ran a gauntlet of protestors — including staff and volunteers from Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley — leaving the library and faced jeers and boos at several points during the forum. Attendees at the forum had signed up in advance for the RSVP only event and at least a few seemed to have done so with the express intention of giving Faso a piece of their mind regarding the AHCA (Faso, cast a yes vote in committee on an earlier version of the bill that was pulled when house GOP leaders realized it did not have the votes). When Faso addressed non-AHCA issues, there were grumbles of “filibustering.” Faso’s prescriptions for a fix for the nations health care system were met with cries of “That’s why we need single payer!” Several participants in the forum referenced independent evaluations that concluded the bill would likely result in many Americans losing coverage. Faso ignored the boos; at several points, he engaged in short back-and-forth exchanges with critics. The loudest jeers came when the congressman defended a cut in the capital gains tax and other taxes to fund Obamacare that will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans.
“I justify the capital gains tax reduction because it is impeding economic growth in this country,” said Faso.
Faso was one of two congressmen to spend time in Kingston on Monday; later that evening at a rally at the Senate Garage in Uptown, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democrat who represents the next congressional district down the river, slammed both the AHCA and Faso.
Speaking before the Uptown event, Faso called it “partisan” and “a political stunt” organized by opponents, adding that he would not have attended the forum even if he didn’t have a scheduling conflict. Faso added just two weeks ago, Maloney had appeared with him at an event at Marist College to promote bipartisan cooperation in Washington.
“It’s sad, but I can’t say it was unexpected,” said Faso of Maloney’s “adopt-a-district” gambit. “Because that’s his reputation.”