At New Orleans East town hall, panelists defend Medicaid expansion, oppose Senate health care bill


Paneilsts Nick Albares, Dawn Hebert, Dr. Keith Winfrey and Cyndi Nguyen lauded the 2016 expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program.
  • Paneilsts Nick Albares, Dawn Hebert, Dr. Keith Winfrey and Cyndi Nguyen lauded the 2016 expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program.

In the bright front room at New Orleans East Louisiana Community Health Center (NOELA), a crowd of about forty people gathered July 13 for a town hall that gradually mounted a firm opposition to the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The panel, which was organized by Louisiana Budget Project, included LBP senior policy analyst Nick Albares, NOELA chief medical officer Dr. Keith Winfrey, VIET executive director Cyndi Nguyen and community advocate Dawn Hebert. (Nguyen and Hebert are both New Orleans City Council candidates running for the District E seat, which includes New Orleans East.) Panelists cited the importance of the ACA-connected Medicaid expansion to New Orleans East residents and Louisianans, and called on audience members to urge their senators to vote against the BCRA.

"At the end of the day, what [the BCRA bill] means is hundreds of thousands of people will lose heath insurance, including 50,000 children," Albares said. "It would reverse all the progress that we've been making over the past year."

Unlike some other recent local actions and panels which have opposed ACA repeal, which focused on unpopular provisions like lifetime benefit caps and pre-existing condition protections, this town hall was heavily focused on the BCRA's prospective cuts to Medicaid — an issue which has special resonance in the East, where the program is the primary or only insurance provider for many people.

At NOELA, 63 percent of Winfrey's patients are now covered by Medicaid, as opposed to 39 percent before the expansion. Those patients now have access to life-saving screenings, specialists and medications, when before their treatment might have hinged on what they could afford, he said. Many of those screenings caught long-term issues and cancers while they were still treatable.

"The risk of losing Medicaid will literally cripple our community," Nguyen said. She pointed out that the ACA has helped bolster jobs at hospitals and in the medical field (500,000 jobs nationwide, by one recent Goldman Sachs estimate.) Albares also added that the BCRA could have disastrous ripple effects on the perpetually precarious Louisiana state budget, leading to cuts in higher education funding or even business allocations.

A few hours before the town hall, Senate Republicans released a revised version of the BCRA intended to placate senators who had been hesitant to pledge their support. Th latest version still includes massive changes to the Medicaid program, including itsshift from Medicaid as an open entitlement to a block grant structure (in which states receive a set amount of money with which to operate their Medicaid programs.) It also includes a proposal in which insurers could offer bare-bones plans as long as they offer at least one plan with the ACA's essential health benefits provisions, a move which BCRA critics say eventually would shuffle people into de facto pools of "sick" customers and "healthy" customers.

At the event, two pediatricians who were not authorized to speak for their organization told Gambit that they, like most doctors they know personally, are horrified by the potential outcomes if BCRA passes. One expressed shock at the lack of transparency in the process, which she said could undermine the entire Medicaid program as it has existed over the past several decades. Her colleague, an allergy specialist, said it doesn't bode well for his young patients with asthma — many of whom will not be able to afford their medication if they lose insurance coverage.

"People will be sick. People will die," he said. "It's frustrating when your expertise is being ignored."

In a nod to the East's diverse community, headset translators were provided at the event, and signs and handouts were offered  in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. During the Q&A session, Troy Glover of Together Louisiana asked panelists what attendees could do to help stop the BCRA. The panel urged all in attendance to call, email and reach out on social media to Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy, who may vote on the bill as soon as next week.

"We are discussing this out in the open while they're discussing it behind closed doors," Albares said. "It's the most important issue in our generation in terms of impacts on people who are just looking to get by."

Louisiana Budget Project will host a similar panel July 18 at East Bank Regional Library (4747 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie.) Other panels are scheduled statewide.

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