Disabled Activists Put Their Bodies on the Line to Defend Health Care

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Disabled Activists Put Their Bodies on the Line to Defend Health Care

Security officials remove an activist from a protest outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Demonstrators were opposing proposed cuts to Medicaid. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

“They haven’t told us what we’re being arrested for yet,” said Rhoda Gibson, an organizer with ADAPT, a groups that advocates for disability rights. Gibson was speaking to me via Skype from a police van, where she being transported with other activists after they were arrested for protesting the Senate version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), dubbed the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). Gibson was one of 60 people who participated in a “die-in” at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office Thursday. Several of the activists, including Gibson, are wheelchair users who rely heavily on Medicaid to cover their health care-related costs.

When Senate Republicans finally unveiled their secret health care bill Thursday morning, it appeared to be not very different from the version the House passed some weeks ago—except that the proposed cuts to Medicaid go even deeper.

Gibson, who is African-American and has needed a wheelchair for the past six years, explained that “by cutting Medicaid, we will lose our housing, our personal care attendants, our right to live independently.” Gibson just had surgery to replace her right shoulder and still needs an elbow replacement. She needs help getting dressed and cleaning her house. “I would like to be able to live the way I’m living,” she said. If the Senate version of the bill passes and is signed into law by President Trump, Gibson says she will lose her housing and her personal care attendant.

Another Medicaid recipient named Colleen Flanagan was among those arrested. She told me that “the reason why we got out of our wheelchairs and put our bodies on the line was because Medicaid is going to be cut and capped.” She explained: “Without the federal government matching money to the states for home and community-based services, no one’s going to pay for this wheelchair that cost over $20,000. No one’s going to pay someone a living wage so that I can live in a home that I choose and that I contribute to [to] make my neighborhood better.”

Flanagan’s disability is the result of a medical condition that makes her bones extremely fragile, which made her participation in the “die-in” very risky. “I did not want to have a bunch of cops lift me in a way that could have been unsafe, but I did that because this message needs to heard,” she said.

President Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, expanded Medicaid funding to states, which benefits low-income Americans, including those with disabilities. The Senate’s BCRA bill repeals most of the ACA’s tax increases on wealthy Americans that helped pay for the Medicaid expansion. In effect, the Republican senators want to give back to the rich by taking away from the poor.

Beyond funding health care for low-income Americans, the Medicaid expansion under the ACA helped the economy as a whole. Studies found that more jobs were created in states that expanded Medicaid than in the 15 states that chose not to. “It’s not just about sick people, it’s not just about poor people; this is about jobs,” said Flanagan. Indeed, home care workers like the personal care attendant Gibson relies on, nurses and other health care professionals stand to lose their jobs if Republicans decide it is more important for wealthy Americans to pay less in taxes than it is for ordinary Americans to have health care they can’t afford to pay for out of pocket.

In many other cases, Republicans are quick to tout job creation as a justification for their policies, even those that might be destructive to the environment. In the case of cuts to Medicaid, there is no mention of jobs whatsoever.

The rights of disabled Americans to live with dignity is also nowhere on the GOP’s radar. Ironically, under Republican President George H.W. Bush, the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Writing in the New Republic on the 25th anniversary of that milestone law’s passage, Brian Beutler speculated: “Given what we know about today’s Republican Party, it stands to reason that few or none of the GOP primary candidates this cycle would support ADA, and that ADA would fail in Congress, if it were introduced as new legislation today.”

“They’re not demonstrating that they care about disability rights,” Flanagan said about Republican senators. “They used to—they’re not doing it anymore.”

Given how cruel the GOP bill is, it is no surprise that its negotiations took place in secret. Thirteen white male senators crafted the details in such a clandestine manner that the satire website The Onion posted a doctored photo of Sen. McConnell shoving the entire bill into his mouth to hide it from passing Democrats earlier this week. Julia Rovner, an analyst who has covered health care-related negotiations in Washington, D.C., for years, wrote, “The extreme secrecy is a situation without precedent, at least in creating health care law.” Republican claims that Obamacare negotiations were also conducted in secret were debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes.com.

Republicans need 51 votes to pass the bill and currently control 52 seats. But there are four holdouts. Shockingly, to this handful of senators, the bill is not cruel enough, even though they offer rhetoric suggesting that they want to lower health care costs and are concerned about insurance premiums being too high. What Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin want is a complete repeal of the ACA.

There are forces, albeit smaller in number, on the moderate side of the Republican Party in the form of Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who are pulling in the opposite direction. In the end, passage of the BCRA and the fate of millions of Americans may depend on this extremely small handful of elected officials who personally enjoy health insurance plans made available by the ACA.

The Republican Party is entirely out of step with the American people on the issue of health care, most of whom disapprove of their efforts to repeal Obamacare.

When I asked how far she would go to protest the Senate version of the health care bill, Flanagan retorted, “Are you serious? Until we finally get some respect and they listen to us as equal Americans who are here. We vote, we pay taxes, and we’re making this country better and we’re growing it.”

The GOP would do well to listen to the growing grass-roots anger that is fueling Flanagan and others like her to put their bodies on the line to stop the cruel cuts to needed health care.

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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