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Disabled Activists Put Their Bodies on the Line to Defend Health Care

Posted on Jun 25, 2017

  Security officials remove an activist from a protest outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Demonstrators were opposing proposed cuts to Medicaid. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

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“They haven’t told us what we’re being arrested for yet,” said Rhoda Gibson, an organizer with ADAPT, a groups that advocates for disability rights. Gibson was speaking to me via Skype from a police van, where she being transported with other activists after they were arrested for protesting the Senate version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), dubbed the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). Gibson was one of 60 people who participated in a “die-in” at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office Thursday. Several of the activists, including Gibson, are wheelchair users who rely heavily on Medicaid to cover their health care-related costs.

When Senate Republicans finally unveiled their secret health care bill Thursday morning, it appeared to be not very different from the version the House passed some weeks ago—except that the proposed cuts to Medicaid go even deeper.

Gibson, who is African-American and has needed a wheelchair for the past six years, explained that “by cutting Medicaid, we will lose our housing, our personal care attendants, our right to live independently.” Gibson just had surgery to replace her right shoulder and still needs an elbow replacement. She needs help getting dressed and cleaning her house. “I would like to be able to live the way I’m living,” she said. If the Senate version of the bill passes and is signed into law by President Trump, Gibson says she will lose her housing and her personal care attendant.

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Another Medicaid recipient named Colleen Flanagan was among those arrested. She told me that “the reason why we got out of our wheelchairs and put our bodies on the line was because Medicaid is going to be cut and capped.” She explained: “Without the federal government matching money to the states for home and community-based services, no one’s going to pay for this wheelchair that cost over $20,000. No one’s going to pay someone a living wage so that I can live in a home that I choose and that I contribute to [to] make my neighborhood better.”

Flanagan’s disability is the result of a medical condition that makes her bones extremely fragile, which made her participation in the “die-in” very risky. “I did not want to have a bunch of cops lift me in a way that could have been unsafe, but I did that because this message needs to heard,” she said.

President Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, expanded Medicaid funding to states, which benefits low-income Americans, including those with disabilities. The Senate’s BCRA bill repeals most of the ACA’s tax increases on wealthy Americans that helped pay for the Medicaid expansion. In effect, the Republican senators want to give back to the rich by taking away from the poor.

Beyond funding health care for low-income Americans, the Medicaid expansion under the ACA helped the economy as a whole. Studies found that more jobs were created in states that expanded Medicaid than in the 15 states that chose not to. “It’s not just about sick people, it’s not just about poor people; this is about jobs,” said Flanagan. Indeed, home care workers like the personal care attendant Gibson relies on, nurses and other health care professionals stand to lose their jobs if Republicans decide it is more important for wealthy Americans to pay less in taxes than it is for ordinary Americans to have health care they can’t afford to pay for out of pocket.


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