Hirono: ‘Healthcare Is a Right, Not a Privilege’

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Senator speaks out against GOP bill, which is later defeated.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), co-author of the “repeal and replace” bill, and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) were the first speakers at the Senate Finance Committee hearing.

WASHINGTON — The latest GOP healthcare bill, authored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), will not be voted on this week, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The Republican leadership had hoped for a vote before the end of the month, but the defection of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) meant there was not enough support for the “repeal and replace” legislation.

One of the complaints about the process from Democrats and some Republicans was that the bill was being rushed through with only one hearing, held Sept. 25 by the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as ranking member.

The hearing, which was briefly interrupted by protesters, began with Graham stating that Obamacare has been “a disaster in my state.” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), the second speaker, gave the following statement:

“When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer about five months ago, two things: The first was the diagnosis came as a total shock to me. It came about incidental to a physical checkup that involved an entirely different procedure that I was facing. This is how a lot of people learn about a serious illness or condition. Out of the blue — bang! You can’t plan for it.

“Second, I received letters, cards and notes when people found out. I was touched by the hands reaching out to me, the show of compassion, including from so many of my colleagues, including members of this committee on both sides of the aisle. Every day now, people come up to me at airports, grocery stores, restaurants, to tell me that they too are cancer survivors. There is a connection there. There is never a good time to have cancer, but what I am experiencing through my cancer is the care and concern expressed by total strangers. This is compassion. It helps me a lot.

“What we do as leaders affecting everyone’s lives should reflect compassion. Sadly, that’s not in this bill. In the greatest, richest country in the world, compassion for our fellow men and women should not be so elusive or, indeed, missing. After all the compassion and care that I received from my colleagues after I disclosed my diagnosis, the Graham-Cassidy proposal reflects neither care nor compassion for millions across the country. Health care is a right. It is a right, it is not a privilege for those who can afford it. But Graham-Cassidy treats healthcare like a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is fundamentally wrong.

“Although nearly all of us will face a serious illness during our lifetimes, it’s almost impossible to budget and plan for the costs associated with treating it. And once you’re diagnosed, you can’t just put off treatment because you can’t afford it. Before the Affordable Care Act, catastrophic healthcare costs were the largest driver of personal bankruptcies in the country. And since the law went into effect, we’ve seen a huge reduction in personal bankruptcies. There is a causal relationship when people get healthcare.

“If you dig into the details and numbers, it’s clear — this bill is much worse than the bill we defeated in July. Under the thin veneer of states’ rights and local control, the Graham-Cassidy bill imposes a radical overhaul of one-sixth of the American economy. According to the Brookings Institution, 32 million people will lose their health coverage under it.

“There’s so much wrong with this bill that it’s difficult to confine my remarks to only the short time I’ve been allowed to testify. Contrary to promises made by the bill’s authors, this proposal undermines protections for close to 600,000 people in Hawaii and 134 million people all across the country living with pre-existing conditions. This bill seriously undermines consumer protections that require coverage for pre-existing conditions and prohibit insurance companies from charging sick people more for care, which is exactly what they will do, believe me, if this bill passes.

“The process requires a pro forma explanation of how a state would maintain coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, but it’s really a box that they just check off. There’s nothing here that ensure the level of protection that the Affordable Care Act does. Sure, the federal government can deny a state’s waiver application, but the very people who would be making this decision at the federal level are long-time opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

“Sadly, the American people cannot trust this administration to do the right thing regarding their healthcare. We don’t have to look back far to see what the result would be. If a state was granted a waiver, insurance companies could use age, health status, and other factors to determine what premiums to charge. They could set annual and lifetime limits on care, and could refuse treatments because of how much they cost …

“I have a complicated illness and I would reach lifetime limits in practically a nanosecond. I intend to live a lot longer before that day comes. Under this bill, coverage might be available, but it would be prohibitively expensive and able to be taken away at someone’s moment of greatest need.

“This bill dismantles Medicaid as we know it. The bill converts Medicaid into a block grant and cuts its funding by hundreds of billions of dollars by 2026. It punishes states like Hawaii that expanded Medicaid by cutting federal funding and redistributes it to those states that did not expand Medicaid, and therefore hundreds of thousands of people in those states don’t even have the kind of coverage that Hawaii provided. For Hawaii, we’re looking at around $4 billion in cuts and 91,000 fewer Hawaii residents having healthcare because of this bill.

“Because states would receive so much less money, they will no longer be able to provide quality, adequate care for as many people as possible. Instead they will face the impossible task of choosing who should lose insurance and which services to cut. Even then, the most vulnerable members of our society, the elderly and the disabled, children, would not receive the care and services they need …

“We are all one diagnosis away from a major illness — I certainly found that out. With so much uncertainty right now in our country, the one thing that people should be able to count on in the richest country in the world is getting the care they need when they need it. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege for those who can afford it. Healthcare is personal to every single one of us.

“I’d like to conclude with a call to action. This bill would be devastating for millions of people across the country facing dire health consequences. Millions of lives are at stake. Let’s return to the bipartisan negotiations led by Sens. [Lamar] Alexander [R-Tenn.] and [Patty] Murray [D-Wash.] to stabilize the health insurance marketplace. This is something they are doing together in a bipartisan way.

“This is exactly how we should approach healthcare in our country. Focus on the people we’re elected to serve … Show them the compassion that they are expecting from their leaders. They expect us to work together and come up with a bill that we can get behind.”

Hatch told Hirono, “I think I speak for all of my colleagues when I say we are hopeful and praying … for your quick and total recovery from cancer.”

Hirono was the only Democratic senator to testify against the bill.

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