Congressman Glenn Thompson holds town hall, clashes with constituents over health care
On Thursday, August 10, the congressional represenative for Pennsylvania’s 5th district, Glenn Thompson, held a town hall hosted by WPSU Penn State. Along with Centre County, where Penn State is located, the 5th district completely includes 10 other counties and partially includes 5 other counties. Cheraine Stanford, a producer and director at WPSU, moderated the event.
— Glenn 'GT' Thompson (@CongressmanGT) August 10, 2017
The town hall is Rep. Thompson’s first held during the 115th Congress, and only follows a wave of significant and sustained pressure placed on him by 5th district constituents, including several rallies outside his offices and a self-organized town hall in February which Thompson chose not to attend. Marc Friedenberg, the leader of an advocacy group called PA5 Truth and Action, also held a “People’s Town Hall” outside the venue “for people who wanted to get into the event but couldn’t because tickets were so limited. It was a chance to… show that the highly-controlled event was not sufficient.”
Like many other town halls held across the country, a significant majority of the questions posed to Thompson addressed the issue of healthcare, and specifically questioned Thompson’s May 4th vote for the American Health Care Act (AHCA) , the GOP’s repeal and replacement plan for the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (ACA).
Although there are numerous affordability problems plaguing the ACA markets currently, the AHCA failed to address them. Instead, numerous studies estimate that it would’ve drastically raised premiums for elderly and rural Americans, taken away the insurance of an estimated 24 million Americans, and allowed states to discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, all while giving a cumulative tax cut totaling nearly $600 billion to the wealthiest 2%. Despite all this, Congressman Thompson claimed at the time that the AHCA “aims to bring lower costs, increase choice, and provide assurances to those with pre-existing conditions.”
Although Thompson restated his belief that “the frank reality is that our health insurance system that we have is failing” and “Centre County… [has] gone through a lot of pain since 2010 with the ACA,” most of Thompson’s explanations for why he chose to support the AHCA didn’t address how exactly it would mitigate these failures or this pain.
Instead, his arguments largely revolved around claims that: the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of its effects were flawed; that the individual mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance was simply immoral; that “health care is a right, [but] I just disagree that there is one… strategy for access,” without explaining his strategy; and that single-payer insurance wouldn’t work, despite the fact that the U.S. spends by far the most on health insurance compared to other wealthy countries with universal coverage, while U.S. health outcomes are far worse. To retiterate, he did all of this without never once stating how the AHCA’s mechanisms would’ve actually helped fix the insurance markets.
At one point, Thompson did attempt to hedge his support for the bill, stating that “I didn’t support it when it first came out of committee and read it… so I told leadership I couldn’t support this bill, but I laid out the reasons why because I want to solve problems. Within three or four days, they amended the bill, and they provided my fixes.” Thompson claimed that these fixes included increasing Medicaid reimbursement levels for people with disabilities, and providing additional subsidies for older adults so that “their premiums didn’t skyrocket.”
Right after this explanation, a female identifying herself as Emily from State College, who had met with Thompson in the Spring, stated that at that meeting “You promised me that people like me who have a disability and rely on Medicaid by necessity would be protected… and despite what you’re saying, you did vote [for] the AHCA [which] would’ve taken $800 billion away from Medicaid.” (Showcasing the crowd’s frustration with Thompson’s dodgy answers to that point, it erupted in applause at this line.)
Emily paused, then asked: “I would like to know how you justify making that promise to me and then voting for a bill that increased the uncertainty of my healthcare and would’ve reduced my benefits by imposing per capita caps?”
Thompson’s response: “Emily, I appreciate you being here, but that’s just not the case with the bill when you look at it… it put somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 billion towards individuals with pre-existing conditions. On top of that, at the 11th hour… we put an additional $8 billion in the AHCA.”
What Thompson is claiming here is a commonplace talking point used by Republicans to explain away their Medicaid cuts, but Emily is indeed correct: the AHCA, even with the late amendments Thompson referenced, would cut Medicaid by $834 billion over ten years, resulting in an estimated 14 million low-income and disabled Americans losing their insurance by 2026 alone.
Despite Thompson dodging Emily’s concerns, he told her: “It’s good seeing you again. Thanks for being among those who exercise that opportunity to be able to come in and to sit down and to really talk about your concerns and your issues. That’s something that I’ve always committed to.”
Throughout the town hall, Thompson also expressed his support for a different bipartisan healthcare bill being pushed by the “Problem Solver” caucus, a group made up of 40 Republican and Democratic members in the House.
This bill, which combines “top Democratic priorities on health care with some top Republican ones,” would ensure that the government continues to provide subsidies to those enrolled in the ACA markets, would create a “dedicated stability fund” for states to take pressure off of insurers struggling under the current system, and would require that only companies with at least 500 employees provide insurance, among other changes.
Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, argued that it would “likely drive down premiums and deductibles for Obamacare enrollees,” as well as “remove the threat of millions losing their health insurance bcause of instability on the Obamacare exchanges.” Nonetheless, it would be unlikely to expand coverage to the 28 million Americans still unisured.
Along with those related to health care, Thompson also addressed questions related to Planned Parenthood, his support for large tax cuts to the wealthy, his beliefs regarding human-caused climate change, his opinion about the caustic rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the opiod crisis, and his commitment to protecting local water, among others.
His answers to questions about climate change were particularly notable. To Eric from State College, Thompson expressed his opposition to a carbon tax, given that “we’ve spent $77 billion on climate change and I haven’t seen much in exchange for it, honestly. I’m sure there are some good things, I’m just not aware of it.”
To another question, asking “What are you doing to support the solar and wind industries in PA or do you, like our president, dismiss the threat of climate change?”, Thompson stated that: “I think humans contribute, the amount that it contributes… compared to the natural evolving climate changes perhaps based on sunspot activity or… issues related to wildfires which are increasing on a signficiant level in [the] western United States… I think there are just a lot of issues… I think that humans are a part of that, I’m just not sure how much.”
Throughout this answer, Cheraine Stanford had to ask the audience to lower their voices and allow Thompson to speak.
Numerous Penn State students attended the town hall, and were frustrated with the results. Senior Anthony Zarzycki stated that he “thought it would be a good forum for a moment where there are many people felling very anxcious about what’s going on. While it was a nice gesture for him to hold this, that’s all it turned out to be. He evaded questions, never gave a sold answer, and was flat out lying to the people in the room with numbers he pulled out of thin air.” After the broadcast ended, Zarzycki asked Thompson about how the AHCA would allow states to opt out of pre-existing condition requirements, but denied that this was the case.
Sophomore Rylie Cooper, who was also a candidate for Borough Council in the spring, argued that “The town hall, in my opinion, was not ‘a step in the right direction,’ as some people were calling it. This event was about as effective as talking to an aide in his office. GT was not receptive to anything that was said, unless it was a point made by him. I am disappointed in his behavior, but I am prooud of WPSU for conducting a non-partisan and important event.”
Laura Shadle, the President of Centre County Young Democrats, said that “The general mood in the room was one of great frustration over Thompson’s apparent unwillingness to substantively answer the questions he was asked on very pressing issues. For example, any questions regarding his vote in favor of the AHCA were met with often false statements deflecting to his disapproval of the ACA. Needless to say, the majority of those attending were not pleased with his performance.”