At the recent Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, one question on the minds of elected officials and the 180 advocates they met with was this: How will the disabled population continue to receive adequate services if the Affordable Care Act is scrapped as President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have promised?
In a Rayburn House Office Building meeting room on Feb. 2, Democratic and Republican lawmakers discussed the healthcare system. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told the advocates that he was signing up for health insurance in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building and watching a line of lawmakers waiting to do the same.
“I said to myself, ‘Please don’t tell me these people have signed up for their health insurance and then are going upstairs to strip 22 million Americans of their health insurance.’ But sure enough, that’s exactly what proceeded to happen,” Raskin said to the group, whose day of lobbying was sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that Medicaid cuts of more than $1 trillion over a decade, as proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), would have a “devastating impact” on those with disabilities.
He also urged attendees to pay attention to the confirmation process of secretary of education designate Betsy DeVos. During a confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, DeVos said that she thought the enforcement of a federal law that tells the states to accommodate special needs students should be left to the states.
Disabled people make up about 15 percent of Medicaid enrollees. While Medicaid has traditionally been a program for low-income individuals, the ACA expanded its eligibility to Americans who were above the poverty line, including those who are disabled.
As an alternative, Republicans have proposed a block grant program for Medicaid, under which states would seek specific amounts of federal dollars for the program.
While Democratic lawmakers criticized cuts to benefits for the disabled, Republican speakers steered clear of the ACA and instead spoke about the impact the disability community has on Washington.
“The message you have all heard today is one of hope and opportunity, not one of despair and begging,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who has a son, 23, with Down syndrome.
One participant asked Sessions, “Since you’ve committed to helping this community, with cuts coming down the pike, where are your priorities?”
“Well, I hate to do this, but who’s talking about cutting Medicaid?” he said to scattered chuckles. Event leader and JFNA Washington Director William Daroff then reminded him of Republicans’ proposal to make cuts a part of their repeal-and-replace plan for the ACA.
“I’m on Obamacare,” Sessions responded. “Two of the largest hospitals in Dallas do not take Obamacare, period,” he said.
“If Alexander Gregory, he’s now an adult, if he were on my healthcare, he could not go to children’s hospital in Dallas, Texas,” he said. “Is that fair? Not it’s not fair. We need to change the options that are available.”
ACA-funded disability services came up again as the participants fanned out to lobby legislators to keep the ACA and to voice concern about President Donald Trump’s federal hiring freeze.
In Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-Wis.) office, Legislative Director Elizabeth Stower met with nine students from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in the District of Columbia.
Student Eugene Koraneu told of a Galluadet graduate who took a federal job with a three-hour commute each way because there were not enough employment opportunities for her closer to home. Her experience was representative of many Gallaudet students who begin their careers in government jobs, Koraneau said. A hiring freeze would make their situation worse, he said.
Stower said that Kind does not support the hiring freeze. “I think there are many jobs that cannot go unfilled and you have an encouraging story to tell as you help come educate us about the role disabilities and deaf people play in the federal government,” said Stower, who told the group that her 17-year-old niece is deaf and is considering attending Gallaudet.
The university’s Hillel director, Jacob Salem, asked Stower what might happen if her niece had to visit the hospital and there was no on-site interpreter available, only Video Remote Interpreting, a Skype-like service.
“In a hospital, you’re lying down, and if you’re moving from room to room that [video] screen has to move with you,” he said. “It makes communication more difficult. And you’re relying on an internet connection, so if that goes out you’re without an interpreter.”
Because Medicaid funds a variety of disability services, including speech and hearing therapy, these programs could be put on the chopping block if the ACA is repealed. Salem urged Stower relay this message to Kind.
She assured the group that Kind would not support anything that “undermined the ACA.”