Looking back on ‘healthcare hell’

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Bart Stupak didn’t seek out the role he played in the fight over ObamaCare more than seven years ago, but he has no regrets over how it all played out.

Stupak, a Democrat who opposes abortion and represented Michigan’s 1st Congressional District for 18 years, became a thorn in his party’s side over demands in the debate on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) against funding for abortion. Now, he’s telling his side of the drama during former President Obama’s first term that resulted in the passage of the massive healthcare overhaul, just as Republicans struggle in their multi-year push to repeal it.

Stupak’s new book, “For All Americans,” offers a look into his bitter scuffles with fellow Democrats over abortion and healthcare. Notably, Stupak recounts a November 2009 standoff with current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he says forced him to push for an amendment to the House bill barring the use of federal funds for abortion.

Stupak eventually voted to pass the final legislation, after securing a promise from Obama that reinforced the government’s commitment to the Hyde Amendment.

“The book is not about me. The important part is the small group of folks who pushed healthcare over the finish line,” Stupak said in a recent interview in his Washington office at law firm Venable, where he now works.

Stupak sees his role in the ObamaCare debate as successful, though it didn’t come without sacrifices. Threats were made on his life, and he continues to describe the experience as his personal “healthcare hell.”

Now, Stupak has a unique perspective watching Republicans wage their own war to dismantle Obama’s signature healthcare law.

A months-long push by lawmakers to repeal and replace ObamaCare was left in shambles last week when several Senate Republicans came out against the legislation. The defeat was compounded less than 24 hours later, when certain GOP senators also refused to back a repeal-only plan.

The developments have left Republicans frustrated and with no clear path forward, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell to pin down colleagues on healthcare Looking back on ‘healthcare hell’ McCain returning to Senate in time for health vote MORE (R-Ky.) has pledged to hold a vote this week.

The problem, Stupak says, is that lawmakers are focused on politics over policy.

“If they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, every Congress has that right. All I ask is you do it based on policy reasons and not based on political reasons,” Stupak said. “The policy decisions are no longer debated. It’s all politics.”

President Trump campaigned on repealing and replacing ObamaCare and has shown growing frustration with GOP lawmakers’ failure to get the job done. Following the effort’s collapse last week, Trump hosted Republican senators at the White House, scolding them over the stalled push and demanding they revive it.

Stupak sees the healthcare fight as indicative of the growing partisanship in Washington, which festered when he was in Congress.

His book lays out a dramatic 2009 scene in which a staffer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee ripped into him privately for voting in favor of a Republican amendment aimed at boosting disclosure of medical costs offered to eventually unsuccessful healthcare legislation.

“What are you doing voting with the Republicans?” the staffer said, according to Stupak’s account.

Stupak says that the divide “has gotten worse” since, blaming it partially on the increase of money in politics.

“It’s hard to get to know some of the Republicans. I’ve tried,” he said. “And even some of the Democrats.”

The White House, he says, is also a big part of the problem.

“We’ve got political slogans, but we don’t have any policy. That’s my objection with President Trump. I think he means well; he just doesn’t know anything,” Stupak said.

Stupak announced that he would not seek reelection in 2010, the same year the ACA was passed, a decision he says he made the night Obama was elected in 2008. Stupak, who had contemplated retiring multiple times before, says Obama’s win gave him confidence that the Democrats would be able to pass comprehensive healthcare reform, allowing him to retire having fulfilled a major campaign promise he made when he first ran in the early 1990s.

The former police officer maintains he was never going to be a “lifer” in Congress. “I told my wife, I’m done. No more. She didn’t believe me, but I kept that promise,” he said. “As things unfolded over those two years, it just reinforced my decisionmaking.”

Since he stepped away, he has had more time to devote to law and his family, spending fewer hours on the road trying to span his 600-mile-wide district in Michigan.

Still, Stupak keeps in touch with his old colleagues when he is in Washington. He has served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and hopes to keep writing books.

“My life is just less complicated,” he said.

Stupak has also continued to insert himself into the nexus of healthcare and law, filing Supreme Court briefs supporting Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor in objection to the government’s application of ObamaCare’s contraception mandate.

In the six years following his exit, Washington has undergone a tremendous shift — the administration of a new, unexpected Republican president has taken over, and the GOP has claimed control of both chambers of Congress.

When asked for his opinion of Trump, Stupak made the unusual move of drawing a parallel between the president and his predecessor, whom he was reluctant to support for president because of his dearth of experience.

“I always thought it was good to shake up Washington, but I also believe that experience comes in government. He has no experience, and it shows,” Stupak said of Trump.

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Looking back on ‘healthcare hell’

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