Long Islanders protest health care bill in Washington

Hundreds of protesters chanted at Vice President Mike Pence and Republican senators at the People’s Filibuster, a protest against the Senate’s health care bill on June 27.
Hundreds of protesters chanted at Vice President Mike Pence and Republican senators at the People’s Filibuster, a protest against the Senate’s health care bill on June 27.
Courtesy Julianna Claase

Anita Faulding hunched her shoulders as the sky turned gray above Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of June 27. The 67-year-old Baldwinite let the rain soak into the back of her bright-pink Planned Parenthood shirt as she glanced from a strip of open space in front of the Supreme Court at two throngs of protesters.

To Faulding’s left, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — somewhere in the center of a sea of signs, flags and people — shouted her concerns about the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Senate’s Affordable Care Act repeal bill. She urged hundreds of volunteers from dozens of progressive organizations to tell her Republican colleagues in Congress and their own neighbors “why this bill is so toxic … and why it harms our families.”

Gillibrand had to yell into a microphone to be heard over the group to Faulding’s right. They were part of the rally, dubbed the People’s Filibuster, at which Gillibrand and fellow Senate Democrats spoke. But when word circulated through the crowd that Vice President Mike Pence had arrived at the Capitol with a bus to take Republican lawmakers who were skeptical about the bill to the White House to meet with President Trump, hundreds raced to the fence in front of the building to meet them.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crowd chanted.

A smile crept onto Faulding’s face as the protesters surrounding Gillibrand began shouting, “Stand up, fight back!”

“It’s very exciting today,” she said. “But I don’t think this can stop. We have to make sure that we hold up the pressure.”

Faulding was one of about 100 Long Islanders who volunteered with Planned Parenthood of Nassau County to take a bus trip to the nation’s capital to protest the latest health care bill. Local Republican leaders also expressed concerns about the measure, which would cause 22 million people to lose coverage by 2027 if it became law, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Two-thirds of those who would lose coverage would be low-income Americans who rely on Medicaid. The GOP health care bill would reduce federal spending by $321 billion.

‘Too severe’

U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Seaford, who also represents part of North Wantagh, said that he would vote against the Senate bill if it were to move on to the House of Representatives. He voted in favor of the House’s American Health Care Act, which also aimed to repeal and replace parts of the ACA, one of President Obama’s major domestic achievements, on May 4.

King said he voted for the House bill expecting that the Senate would improve the legislation. He said he believes, however, that cuts to Medicaid included in the Senate measure would be “too severe in New York.” In a telephone interview on June 28, he also said that he opposed a provision that would slash funding for hospitals that treat low-income patients.

“It’s very, very damaging to New York,” King said. “I think that there are abuses in Medicaid. It does need to be cut back and reformed, but in a very careful and detailed way. You should use a scalpel and not a sledge hammer.”

In recent weeks, King has met with several Republican senators from across the country who said publicly that they would either vote against or remain wary of the bill, including Susan Collins, Rob Portman and Dean Heller. Citing the struggle that moderate and conservative Republicans have had in reaching a consensus on health care reform, King said he had “no idea how [they would] come to an agreement.”

“It’s going to be tough,” said King, when asked if the ACA would be repealed and replaced this year. “I was opposed to Obamacare then and I’m opposed to it now, but the fact of the matter is, it has been in place for seven years. We have to be a lot more careful and a lot more selective about what we change, what we leave alone and what we knock out all together.

“It’s all too much at once,” he concluded.

A day of action

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on June 27 that he would delay the vote on the BCRA until after the Forth of July recess. The news broke around 1 p.m., shortly after Long Islanders arrived at the Sierra Club headquarters in the capital to be briefed on the schedule for Planned Parenthood’s day of action.

About two weeks ago, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund informed affiliates that the Senate was expected to vote on the health care bill before the recess. At the time, the bill hadn’t been released publicly.

When the draft was released, it confirmed the group’s fears that Republicans aimed to strip the organization’s health centers of all federal funding. Planned Parenthood’s national arm asked affiliates in the D.C. area to bring in activists. 

About 300 New Yorkers descended on the capital on June 27. They were given two tasks: approach people on the street to ask them to call their senators with their concerns about the health care bill, and attend the People’s Filibuster, which was also supported by organizations like MoveOn.org, Service Employees International Union, Protect Our Care, the Center for American Progress, the American Federation of Teachers and Women’s March.

Volunteers from communities like Franklin Square, Freeport, Glen Cove, Long Beach, Malverne and Merrick began trickling into a designated meeting point in Roslyn at 5:30 a.m. Once the bus arrived and everyone hopped aboard, many took naps to prepare for the day.

When they arrived at noon, they packed into a conference room at the Sierra Club for canvassing training, with staff members from the national group offering tips about how to talk to strangers about the legislation and how to take photos for social media.

In the middle of the session, a man burst into the room before realizing he would have to tiptoe his way around the hundreds of pink-shirted volunteers sitting on the floor. When he reached the front of the group, he announced that the vote had been pushed back. Activists from Long Island, Albany and the Hudson Valley erupted in applause.

Cynthia King, 56, of Freeport, brought her good mood to the streets. She hugged strangers while handing them Planned Parenthood stickers, leading the pack of Long Islanders on their march toward the Capitol. She said she expected people walking around Washington to be curious.

“'What is this all about, why are there so many women, where are you going, what’s your idea?’” she said, guessing what passerbys might think of the group, without taking a breath. “That draws them in, and it gives us the opportunity to let them know that women are valued. Women have weight. Women are influential.”

King, who said she has received care at Planned Parenthood, added that she supports the organization because it offers affordable services to many young and underprivileged women and their families. Rewa Thompson, a clinician at PPNC’s health centers in Massapequa, Glen Cove and Hempstead, noted that the group does more than provide abortion care.

Thompson, 46, of Roosevelt, tilted her floppy sun hat to take a selfie with her 16-year-old daughter, Kayla, at the People’s Filibuster. While Sen. Cory Booker spoke a few feet away, she recalled a patient who came to PPNC assuming that she was pregnant, and learned that she had gall bladder disease.

“I have referred so many women for life-saving procedures,” said Thompson, who has worked for PPNC for 22 years. “It’s unimaginable. If they didn’t have access to health care at the clinics, they wouldn’t have known that they had breast cancer. That’s why I’m here.”

Behind Thompson, volunteers from the Mid-Hudson Valley Planned Parenthood affiliate, clad in red robes and white bonnets, formed two lines at the back edges of the crowd. Their outfits mimicked those worn by a caste of women forced into sexual servitude in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Christa Bird, 54, of Plainview, stopped when she saw the costumed protesters. But before she arrived at the rally, she talked about her Type 1 diabetes — “a pre-existing condition that isn’t going away” — her 36-year-old niece’s recent cancer diagnosis and where the health care debate might go in the future.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with our country,” she said. “Why don’t we believe that everyone should have insurance?”