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MacArthur Faces Anger, Frustrations At Town Hall

Courier-Post — May 11, 2017

By Carol Comegno

WILLINGBORO — Rep. Tom MacArthur spent hours Wednesday repeatedly defending his controversial amendment that helped secure House approval of a Republican plan to overhaul health-care policy after being pummeled by angry criticism and questions at a packed town hall meeting.

The John F. Kennedy Center banquet hall was filled to capacity with about 300 people, as hundreds more gathered outside with signs and chants protesting MacArthur's position on health care as well as President Trump.

MacArthur, a Republican who voted May 4 for the version of the American Health Care Act that he helped revamp, was often interrupted and sometimes shouted down by the crowd when he tried to give answers during a raucous marathon session that lasted nearly five hours.

MacArthur often asked the crowd for respect, and kept his promise to take every question no matter how long it took.

"I expected that much anger but not that much disrespect," the congressman told the Courier-Post after the public session ended close to midnight. "I wanted to be here and have no regrets about it."

Most town hall questions to the congressman focused on health-care reform, while others touched on President Donald Trump, congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the firing of FBI director James Comey.

"I want every American to be able to afford health care. That's been my goal from the very beginning," MacArthur told the crowd, adding, "I hear your anger, I hear your frustration ... but if we don't find a way to bring down the cost of health care, it is going to swallow us alive."

Because costs are rising and some insurance companies are failing, MacArthur explained, he is trying to fix the system. His bill would give some responsibility to the states to cut spiraling costs but also would cut taxes for the wealthy that are now being used to help pay for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as Obamacare.

Geoff Ginter of Pine Beach, Ocean County, whose wife has had cancer, was having none of that explanation. "You have been the biggest single threat to my family in the whole world. You are the reason I can't sleep," the angry medical technician said, often pointing his finger at the congressman during his 10 minutes of MacArthur bashing.

Ginter said his wife wonders every day what will happen if he loses his job and his health coverage. "I would not be eligible for insurance after 63 days and then she would end up in a high-risk pool," Ginter added, calling MacArthur's bill an "insult to the mental health of the nation."

The two-term congressman, a former insurance executive, responded that he was not going to turn the meeting into a free-for-all and then took other questions.

Claudia Storicks, a nurse in a wheelchair, said she had to leave her job that and if not for the current healthcare system, said she would not have been able to buy insurance.

"The most important point I want to make is that doctors and nurses are against this bill and it gives a tax break to the rich," she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Linda Austin of Edgewater Park, who said the new bill is devastating for her patients because it will lead to poorer health care and flood emergency rooms. "I have lost trust in you, Tom, and am very disappointed in your actions," she said.

MacArthur responded by saying he votes his conscience and noted that when he drives across the Pinelands there are people in other parts of the 3rd Congressional District, which spans Burlington and Ocean counties, who do not agree with him.

Joseph Vetkulic of Jobstown and later Daisy Confoy, a student at Northern Burlington Regional High School, asked the same question about MacArthur's bill: "Is rape a pre-existing condition, yes or no?"

The congressman did not directly respond to the question. Confoy replied, "I think we know the answer."

As the crowd jeered him, MacArthur then said, "I do not consider a violent act against a woman a pre-existing condition," and went on to say the bill does not allow gender discrimination by insurance companies.

He said in an earlier statement, after the House vote, that his amendment would give states the option to obtain a waiver from some federal standards. But the state must attest that its purpose is to reduce the cost of health care or increase the number of people with health-care coverage, he explained.

"Under no circumstance can states obtain a waiver for pre-existing condition protection— period. ... I've said many times that this bill is not perfect, but it's an improvement from where it started and I stand by my efforts to make it better," MacArthur said in the statement.

Paul Ziegler of Edgewater Park voiced his opinion about President Trump. "I'm concerned about a president who praises Vladimir Putin and who attacks the press and calls them the 'enemy of the people' and a president who does not know American history," he said, before dropping a verbal bombshell.

"I am also concerned there is something mentally wrong with Donald Trump," Ziegler said. "Does anyone else see it?" The crowd shouted "Yes!"

Ziegler and Kimberly Stewart of Willingboro asked if MacArthur supported the appointment of an independent prosecutor to handle the ongoing investigation into the possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

MacArthur responded, "Not yet. I want to see the results of the investigation (by the congressional committees)."

MacArthur said he did not come to talk about the president, to which Ziegler replied, "Come on congressman, open your eyes!"

MacArthur responded, "I hear you, but there are a lot of other people who don't agree with you," alluding to voters in Ocean County.

The event brought protesters who voiced concerns before the town hall began. South Jersey groups represented inside and outside the town hall included Democratic and nonpartisan organizations, such as Our Revolution Burlington County and Our Revolution South Jersey, both progressive Democratic organizations; Action Together Burlington County, which calls itself a volunteer grassroots Facebook movement to organize action in support of health-care, women's and gay-rights issues, and the environment; the New Jersey 3rd Congressional District Action Group, started by a Riverton woman; and chapters of South Jersey Now.

Constituent Derek Reichenbecher of Point Pleasant, who was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at age 23, asked MacArthur what happens if he loses his job and his health coverage because "without coverage, I'm dead."

Dozens of others with pre-existing conditions then stood up.

Later, others asked the same question.

MacArthur complimented Reichenbecher for understanding the issue and then said solving the insurance gap issue is partly why he proposed his amendment to the health-care bill, which would create high-risk pools but also would continue Medicaid.

"I want to say thank you for showing up. I'm not saying I agree with you, but thanks for allowing us to voice our concerns," said Joseph Novemsky of Burlington City.
He went on on to suggest what would help health care the most is clean air, water and soil. "Think about paying (health care) for three million with cancer."

MacArthur, a high-profile architect of the revised Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, voted earlier this year against the GOP's first attempt to repeal Obamacare without offering a replacement. A subsequent GOP proposal was withdrawn because it lacked sufficient support.

The House passed the revamped bill by a 217-213 margin. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to receive substantial scrutiny and revisions.

Considered a moderate, MacArthur recently negotiated the bill amendment that loosens some health-insurance regulations, including for people with pre-existing conditions, in order to gain the support of conservative Freedom Caucus members in the House. After putting town halls on hold for months amid heightened political tensions across the country, MacArthur held one in March following numerous requests, in the Ocean County community of Waretown. The South Jersey Now Indivisible chapter held a town hall a few months ago that he declined to attend.

Andrea Gurney of Cinnaminson, a member of theNew Jersey 3rd Congressional District Action Group, said Twitter and Facebook posts recently "took off" as local groups urged constituent attendance at Wednesday's rally and town hall.

"Because of MacArthur's amendment, he attached his name nationally to this health-care act and has made himself a more national figure. Now there are even more people interested in protesting," Gurney said, "but what I can also tell you is there was no central organizer for any of this protest."

On Tuesday, state Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy also called on the public "to stand up to" MacArthur for brokering the deal to pass "Trumpcare" and urged protests at the town hall.

Laurel Smith of Medford, an outspoken member of Our Revolution South Jersey, said before the meeting the new health-care bill would impose a lifetime cap on total Medicaid expenses for her 26-year-old disabled son, Jamieson, who suffers from a rare disorder and obtained Medicaid coverage in December through the Affordable Care Act.

"This bill would kill him," she said of the GOP replacement measure.

"I was at the Waretown meeting and he (MacArthur) promised then not to vote for a bill that would hurt constituents."

Maura Collinsgru, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, in an interview called MacArthur's health-care vote "morally reprehensible and cruel." She predicted it would destroy health care and create unnecessary financial and health emergencies.

"Sadly, despite the outrage of their constituents and the strong opposition of every major health-care stakeholder group in the nation, congressional Republicans — including Rodney Frelinghuysen and Tom MacArthur — voted to put the lives of millions of Americans at risk," she said.

"They voted to abandon those with pre-existing conditions, slash Medicaid funding, and shift health-care costs onto families and state budgets in order to give a $600 million tax break to the very wealthy and big insurers and drug companies."

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