Patient advocacy groups go down to the wire opposing Obamacare repeal bill

Organizations such as the March of Dimes and American Cancer Society have teamed up to fight the latest iteration of healthcare reform in Congress.

With a Republican bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act about to arrive on the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote, patient advocacy organizations are pooling their voices to oppose the measure.

Eight major advocacy groups, including the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, and the American Lung Association, sent a letter to Congress this week opposing the American Health Care Act. They cited a lack of protection for people with pre-existing conditions, as well as Medicaid cuts and the elimination of essential health benefits, which cover preventative screenings, maternity care, and prescription drugs.

The organizations are using their networks of grassroots supporters to sway representatives before the vote. The groups’ shared interest is ensuring patient protections, given that most of the people they advocate for have chronic diseases.

"We’ve been working with other patient advocacy and public health organizations for a long time on many of these issues," says Paul Billings, SVP of advocacy at the American Lung Association. "Over the last four months, we’ve come together to work to preserve patient protections from the ACA. We are working collaboratively to share information and resources to convey the concerns of the patient."

The bill is expected to go to a vote on Thursday afternoon. In March, Republican leaders pulled an earlier version of the American Health Care Act just before a vote due to lack of support. After spending a month amending the bill to win back conservative support, the GOP is on the verge of passing it in the House this week.

Several of the organizations are also encouraging supporters to get in touch with their representatives with email forms and call scripts available on their websites. The groups are urging the public to tell their stories about how insurance mandates in the Affordable Care Act have affected their lives.

For example, American Cancer Society supporters made more than 8,000 calls to members of Congress last week, says Erin O’Neill, VP of volunteer engagement and grassroots strategies at the group.

Its advocacy wing, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, has been localizing the push, organizing supporters to fight the bill in their hometowns. Its volunteers are working on-the-ground until the vote, with several slated to attend a town hall for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Thursday, O’Neill adds.

"We have a really robust social media strategy that’s not just nationally focused, but focused on some specific lawmakers," O’Neill says. "We’re also doing a lot of on-the-ground work. Volunteers are going to district offices every day, leaving new information or new fact sheets, and attending town halls. They're really pounding the pavement back in these districts."

Healthcare reform has been a highly politicized process from President Bill Clinton’s ultimately abandoned reform attempt through the party-line passage of the Affordable Care Act. That trend shows no sign of dissipating with the Affordable Health Care Act, with Democrats uniformly against an Obamacare repeal and most Republicans for it. However, advocacy groups are trying to stay above the fray.

"We’re not trying to be part of the polarized debate that seems to be the norm in Washington," Billings said. "What we’re trying to say is that patients with lung disease and other patients who deal with both acute and chronic illness need a healthcare system that works."

The March of Dimes is taking a similar tone. The organization’s president, Stacey Stewart, said its advocacy is more focused on providing facts and research to lawmakers about the consequences of the bill rather than looking at it from a political perspective.

Some healthcare groups such as the ALS Association, Alzheimer’s Association, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, have not lent their names to the letter. Others, such as the American Diabetes Association and the JDRF have tweeted their opposition to the bill.

Senate-bound, or Groundhog Day
If the bill passes the House, the organizations will continue their fight until a vote takes place in the Senate, where significant changes are bound to be made. The groups are planning to target a different set of lawmakers while keeping abreast of more changes to the legislation in the upper chamber.

"This will be just one step, and if the bill passes the House, it still has a way to go before ultimately finding itself on the president’s desk, and we will not give up," Stewart says. "We will go through a similar process to make sure we’re providing them with similar analysis and objective information. We already expect the Senate to have significant changes to what the House has proposed."

And if this Obamacare repeal-and-replace effort also fails in the House, the groups are preparing for the next healthcare-reform bill. "If it doesn’t pass, it’ll be Groundhog Day at another point in the future," Billings says.

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