Moments after the gavel struck to open the Senate’s only hearing on the Graham-Cassidy Obamacare repeal bill, dozens of activists, many in wheelchairs, broke out into chants and caused the session to go into recess. Some 180 people were eventually arrested.
“I would like to welcome everyone, and I do mean everyone,” said Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as a protester suddenly yelled, “Save our Liberty.”
As the chant of “Don’t touch Medicaid, Save our Liberty,” grew in volume, Hatch slammed his gavel repeatedly to try to bring the room to order.
Ignoring him, activists continued chanting as Capitol Police started to separate protesters, many from the disability group ADAPT, and wheeled them out of the room. Just minutes into the hearing, Senator Hatch said, “The committee will be in recess until we get order,” then left.
Both Democratic and Republican senators remained on the dais, and quietly watched the demonstration continue as police arrested dozens of protesters.
The hearing comes as Senate Republicans pursue a last-ditch effort to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The latest effort is the bill proposed by Senators Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) and Lindsey Graham’s (R-South Carolina), which would shift funding and key coverage decisions for both private insurers and Medicaid to states instead of the federal government. Medicaid is a government-run health insurance program for the poor and disabled. If passed, that would mean the availability and price of coverage could vary dramatically from state to state.
If Graham-Cassidy does become law, some changes would be immediate, but others would take effect two years from now and depend on how states and insurance companies decide to operate under the new system.
The bill would eliminate Obamacare-imposed fines for not having insurance, including penalties for companies with 50 or more employees that do not offer coverage.
Employer-sponsored coverage is the most common form of health insurance in the US, covering an estimated 151 million people under the age of 65, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.
Overall cuts could see a $215 billion cut in federal funding for health insurance through 2026. Adults without children who receive coverage through the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would lose it under the new bill, and individual states would have to decide who is eligible for Medicaid, or scale back what the program covers.
Once the protesters were removed, Senator Hatch returned, warning he wouldn’t hesitate to adjourn the hearing if it became a “sideshow.”
“Let’s have a civil discussion,” he added.
The hallway outside of the hearing was packed full of protesters, reporters and police officers, with the committee filled with mainly lawmakers, the media and invited guests.
The panel’s top Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said only a few people supported the legislation.
“There’s just one group cheering this bill on — the right-wing Republican donor class,” he said.
Calling it a repeal by a thousand cuts, Wyden said it would be a nightmare for tens of millions of American and the majority of whom didn’t support the bill. He said he had received 25,000 comments opposing the bill that he wanted entered into the record.
Cassidy and Graham defended their bill before the Finance Committee.
“I don’t need a lecture from anybody about health care,” Graham told the panel’s Democrats. “What you have created isn’t working.”
Under the bill, 34 states would get more health money than under Obama’s law, the Republicans said. Democrats countered that the numbers were deceptive because they omitted the cuts Republicans would impose on Medicaid.
The US Capitol Police confirmed Monday evening that 181 people were arrested in connection to the protest.
Republicans appear to be short of votes ahead of a make-or-break deadline at the end of this week.