Louisiana senator’s town hall interrupted with health care protests

A tale of two town halls.

Senator Cassidy taking questions in Baton Rouge about 2016 floods and health care. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA — Last August, catastrophic flooding swallowed swaths of this state. Red Cross called it the worst natural disaster to strike since Hurricane Sandy five years ago. Thirteen dead, more than 100,000 houses flooded, and among the hardest hit was Baton Rouge and its nearby suburbs. This is why Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) held two town halls Friday in Louisiana’s state capitol.

Some Baton Rouge residents used the flood-focused town hall to talk about another public health crisis. Unlike the 2016 floods, this one, they say is avoidable: the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA).

Cassidy is the is the first Republican senator to hold a town hall following the delayed health care vote.

BCRA is currently subject to revisions. Cassidy is among a group of Republicans who say they have problems with the health care legislation, but he isn’t firmly against the bill.

“Folks want me to vote on something which has not yet been released,” Cassidy told ThinkProgress and a group of reporters after the town hall.

On Friday, Baton Rouge residents hoped to persuade him to at least vote no to the current version of the BCRA, the one that’s made public on the Senate Budget Committee site and which would strip away 22 million people’s health care.

But instead many were left disappointed and not so much by Cassidy’s answers but by the duration of time given to health-related questions; health care questions were designated to the last 15 minutes of the town hall. For a process that Cassidy agrees is very secretive, constituents were hoping for a word in.

People First Louisiana, self advocacy group run by people with disabilities, wait to attend town hall. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez

Cassidy started his constituent-packed day in north Baton Rouge’s Living Faith Christian Church, which saw six feet of water last August. Clinton Knight, a longtime resident north Baton Rouge resident, was shocked to hear that Cassidy visited the area. “It’s not his base,” he said, “I am impressed.” North Baton Rouge is in East Baton Rouge parish, which is a largely black community and went for Clinton in 2016.

Residents were to glad to see Cassidy host a town hall in north Baton Rouge, as he never held one there before. “But to save the last 15 minutes about heath care,” said Alma Stewart, president of Louisiana Center for Health Equity, “I wouldn’t say I’m happy.”

For many residents who attended the first town hall, the conversation needed to strike a delicate balance between flood and health care concerns. Public health care is as much an issue here as flood recovery, often times here they intersect, said Stewart. Some residents refused to go inside and partake in the town hall, fearing their cries for health care would drown out flood victims’ own concerns.

Sharon Hennessey & Carol McGovern said they were not going inside the town hall because they did not want to distract from flood relief conversations. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez

Inside, among the many BCRA griefs expressed at the town hall was the Medicaid expansion, and the entitlement program overall. BCRA ends the expansion by phasing it out starting in 2021, and also looks to cap funding to the program. When Medicaid expanded in Louisiana in 2016, Medicaid enrollment reached 400,635 new members. If the expansion is repealed, Cassidy said (and has said prior to this town hall) people who get covered through Medicaid can transition to private insurance.

When ThinkProgress asked the senator about high deductibles and premiums in the individual market under BCRA, which could discourage Medicaid beneficiaries from applying, he acknowledged that certain demographics had very high deductibles under the Senate Republican bill. “We should as we redo it find someway to make sure that someone has health care coverage, which is meaningful and not just something which is on paper,” Cassidy said, without elaborating on what that way could be.

Cassidy’s indecision on a major policy decision is already a cause for concern, but even more so because it happened after constituents at the first town hall expressed their frustration with the Republican health care plan.

Credit: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez
The first Baton Rouge resident to get a health care question in. Credit: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez

With one or two minor health-related cheers, the first 45 minutes of the town hall was moderately calm and largely focused on flood relief. But after Cassidy asked attendees interrupting him about health care to be civil, one constituent responded, “I don’t think it’s civil to kill people.”

In the last minute of the town hall, another got up and criticized the senator for not paying attention to people’s health concerns. “You’re saying that people here who are speaking out are — they came here to ask questions about health care, because they will be mostly affected — of being cruel or rude for speaking out, but I’ll tell you what’s rude: kicking 22 million people off their health insurance,” he said.

The town hall ended with chants of attendees claiming that the senator wasn’t doing all he could.

Later, when ThinkProgress asked him about President Trump’s tweet on Friday, which called for Obamacare to be repealed first and replaced later, Cassidy said: “I’m not dismissing the President, number one, I didn’t read the tweet, and number two, to understand the implications of that we need a fuller discussion than a tweet.”

Senator Cassidy speaking to residents in East Baton Rouge Parish Library — Central Branch. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Amanda Gomez

Later Friday afternoon, ten miles northeast, Cassidy hosted a second town hall in Central. Residents there primarily spoke about the 2016 floods. Central was devastated by the floods; the city is between two rivers, Comite and Amite, that flooded. Two people asked about the Republican health care plan; one person asked about Medicaid and the other asked about addicts taking advantage of federal and state funds. Cassidy at least defended the opioid crisis grants, saying long term, they were cost effective.

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Louisiana senator’s town hall interrupted with health care protests

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