A crowd of more than 200 people gathered on Saturday to get the attention of the state’s congressional delegation and say that they want to meet face-to-face to talk about the Affordable Care Act.
Standing outside the state Culture Center, community members rallied to ask the state’s U.S. senators and representatives two things — to not vote on any health care law before attending a town hall meeting with their constituents, and to not vote for any bill that strips away health care for West Virginian families.
“You know, it’s really windy out today but I’m not worried about the wind,” said Rev. Jeff Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. “That is just the wind of democracy blowing from West Virginia all the way to Washington, D.C.”
The state’s congressional delegation largely supports repealing the ACA. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Reps. Evan Jenkins, David McKinley and Alex Mooney, all Republicans, have previously indicated they want to repeal the law.
The rally’s organizers hope they can sway those minds if they hear the stories of people like Emily Birckhead. She graduated from George Washington High School in 2006 with high honors and received enough scholarship money to go to West Virginia University for free.
“I didn’t go to college that fall,” Birckhead, 28, said. “I developed a severe and debilitating eating disorder for which, at the time, there was barely any treatment options available in the state.”
Her parents drove her around the state looking for a therapist or doctor who could help her. None of them specialized in treating an eating disorder, and her health was deteriorating fast. She needed in-patient care.
“My grandparents had started a college savings account for me when I was young,” Birckhead said. “With near fatal vitals, a dangerously low heart rate and around the clock seizures, they had no other choice but to use this money for my treatment. I was devastated.”
Without that money and after missing out on her scholarships, going to college seemed impossible.
“I was working two full-time, minimum wage jobs that didn’t offer health insurance,” Birckhead said. “It wasn’t long before until I found myself sitting in the emergency room being pumped full of fluids, literally dying. All I could think about was the $3,000 ambulance bill I would leave with.”
Afterward, she signed up for Medicaid, which she was only eligible for after it was expanded under the ACA. With that, she was able to work through her eating disorder and graduate from WVU with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., so far is the only member of Congress from the Mountain State to publicly support keeping the ACA, at least in part. He previously told the Gazette-Mail that he wants to fix the parts of the law that don’t work instead of outright repealing it.
A spokesman for the senator said in an email Saturday that Manchin is scheduling town hall meetings, but the location and times have not been decided. (On Friday, a phone call between Manchin and some West Virginians trying to set up a town hall got somewhat heated, according to a Politico report.)
Even if Capito, Mooney, Jenkins and McKinley don’t plan their own town halls, the rally’s organizers are planning one for them. Organizers plan to host a town hall on April 19 inside the Cultural Center and have invited each of them to attend.
As of Saturday afternoon, only Manchin said he would attend, according to Stephen Smith, one of the organizers and director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.
Mary Ann Claytor, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for state auditor last year, urged the crowd to pressure Manchin not to change his mind because her son wouldn’t be able to access the health care he needs without the ACA.
“He has a rare disease that causes blood clots,” she said. “It went from his leg all the way up to his heart and traveled over to his liver. They had to fly him to the University of Virginia, because anybody who gets a serious illness, it’s seems like they’ve got to get shipped out of here.”
At the time, their health care policy had a $1 million lifetime maximum. Claytor said it cost about $900,000 to break up her son’s clots and to undergo a liver transplant.
Then the provisions of the Affordable Care Act kicked in, removing that lifetime maximum. Claytor said the timing was perfect because her son developed another aggressive and rare disease — this time paralyzing him from the neck down.
“You all have got to get 10 to 15 more people out here next time so Sen. Manchin doesn’t change his mind, so that he doesn’t fall. I’m telling you, because he’ll get pressure and he’ll forget about us,” Claytor said. “They’ll think they’re not going to get re-elected if they don’t repeal. You let him know, ‘We’re not going to continue to support you if you don’t support us.’”