Congress was in recess last week, meaning some but not all members were holding town hall meetings with constituents back home. Members of Western North Carolina's congressional delegation were NOT holding such meetings however. So residents of Clay and Cherokee Counties held their own.
It was standing room only at the Clay County courthouse in Hayesville, as more than a hundred locals turned out for a town hall meeting on the Affordable Care Act— known as “Obamacare” to many—and what is to become of it.
At the front of the courtroom was a row of five chairs facing the crowd, four of which were filled with event organizers. The fifth chair was empty, and in bold black lettering, Congressman Mark Meadows’s name was written on a sheet of paper taped to it. Although the Republican was invited multiple times, organizers said he would be a no-show.
“We realized about a week ago he was not going to hold town hall meetings,” said Doctor Brian Mitchell, who’s practiced general medicine in Clay County for 40 years. “We asked for a meeting with him at his office in Hendersonville, while he was here for the recess. And we were told he was not available.”
Dr. Mitchell, addressed the crowd, along with the empty chair.
“I take my practice seriously. I think Congressman Meadows should take his responsibilities seriously to hear from his constituents about the healthcare needs of the people in District 11."
Dr. Mitchell then shared several stories of how Obamacare has benefitted both Clay and Cherokee Counties.
“There are several patients in my practice who have Medicaid or should be eligible for Medicaid," he said. "These are patients who have incomes from about $8,000 to $20,000 for a year—with a family of three. These are folks who need healthcare.“
One of his patients, he explained, had no insurance or Medicaid, but did have a breast tumor. Her cancer eventually spread to her lymph nodes.
“If she had been on a Medicaid program, if she had been diagnosed earlier, she would have a much better prognosis than she does now,” he said.
Dr. Mitchell estimates that some twenty five to thirty percent of Clay and Cherokee County residents were uninsured before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed into law. Today, he says that figure has been greatly diminished in an area where the average age of residents is 50, and the median income is $38,000 a year.
Following Mitchell, dozens of locals of varying political affiliations then took the floor to share stories of how the ACA helped them.
Pam Haloran of Brasstown is a small business owner. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, and had an insurance policy with skyrocketing rates, as high as eighteen percent. She was scared to change the policy, because she had a preexisting condition. That is, until one day, she got a notice that she would have to pay $2,100 a month.
“So, we started investigating the Affordable Care," said Haloran. "And thank god it was there. This is something that’s a helpful thing for a lot of people. I finally decided, it’s time for me to get involved. I would love to have the insurance policies that our congressman and representatives have.”
Judith Wikstrom, a recipient of medicare, is a retired nurse.
“It sounds like the Republicans were not prepared at all for a replacement, they were very well prepared for obstruction. There has not been, and still isn’t, a detailed replacement. There aren’t any guarantees.”
GOP leaders in Congress are slowly unveiling their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but many details are still under wraps, including possible drastic changes to Medicaid. ***UPDATE - On Monday, Congressman Meadows told CNN he no longer supports the repeal bill being drafted in Congress.*** Meadows chairs the hardline conservative 'Freedom Caucus', which has long sought the repeal of Obamacare. The caucus is large enough to scuttle Republicans plans should a repeal bill not meet their approval. And while Meadows was not holding town halls during the week of recess, organizers of this meeting indicate that there will be other opportunities for Meadows to meet with them in the coming months.
PLEASE NOTE: *WCQS reached out to Congressman Meadows over the weekend to find out why he was unable to attend. As of Monday morning, Feb. 27, he has not yet responded for comment.