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Politics hover over Friday’s health hearing in Gastonia

Friday’s congressional hearing in Gastonia about the Affordable Care Act is shaping up to be political spectacle as much as a serious health care discussion.

Staffers for U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a critic of President Barack Obama’s administration, have vetted five witnesses who will share their mostly negative experience with so-called Obamacare before several members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

On the other side, liberal advocates for the federal health care expansion will be on hand to demonstrate and protest the hearing outside the Gaston County courthouse.

Witnesses will include several businessmen from North Carolina, including Tav Gauss, CEO of Action Group Human Resources Solutions, a staffing firm with multiple offices statewide. He says the Affordable Care Act is hurting businesses because of so much uncertainty, distrust and fear.

Gauss, who also testified before Issa’s committee in 2011, said he recently asked for feedback about the law from his employees and their clients. “It was amazing the numbers of people who came back and said, ‘I don’t know what the ACA is. I don’t care what the ACA is. What is Obamacare? I’m not going to do it because I don’t understand it.’”

Also, U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Cherryville Republican committee member, has invited fellow Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger.

As a counterpoint, Progress North Carolina, a group that supports the health overhaul, has organized a demonstration outside the courthouse that will include people who asked to testify but were not invited by the committee. The hearing is at 10 a.m. on the second floor.

“This is going to be a completely one-sided stacked affair,” said Gerrick Brenner, Progress North Carolina’s director. “We will have people out there who should be heard. …These are people who have real stories about health care struggles and how the Affordable Care Act would help them. If it’s not going to be inside, it will be outside.”

Late last week, Issa’s committee announced it was holding the Gastonia hearing, the first in a series of field hearings for members of Congress who want to take a closer look at how the new health care law is affecting people at home.

The law requires nearly everyone to buy health insurance or pay a fine. The goal is to provide affordable insurance for more Americans by offering federal premium subsidies for those who qualify.

According to the New York Times, the hearings are part of an organized Republican attack on the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative initiative. The Times cited a memo distributed to House Republicans this week listing talking points, such as “Because of Obamacare, I Lost My Insurance” and “Obamacare Increases Health Care Costs.”

The hearings come a week after Obama apologized to the country for the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov – the website portal for consumers to enroll in insurance plans through the new federal marketplace.

Administration officials say the website is working better now than it has since the first day of enrollment Oct. 1. But it’s still not performing as well as they hoped – and it’s uncertain whether the problems will be fixed by the promised date of Nov. 30.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that only 26,794 people had managed to complete enrollment on the federal website. Just one in four people nationwide who have enrolled in coverage through the online marketplaces did so through Healthcare.gov. The site serves 36 states, including North Carolina and South Carolina.

Testimony from witnesses

On Thursday, Issa’s office released copies of the testimony witnesses will give at the Gastonia hearing. Written remarks show that all have concerns about the Affordable Care Act.

“I fear that the mandatory ACA will be detrimental to my community,” said the statement by Dan Waters, an insurance agent and broker for 30 years and president of Dan Waters and Associates in Hickory.

“… When struggling employers are required to pay more in benefits, either they will be forced to reduce their workforce, contribute less toward the employee health plan, or drop those plans altogether.”

Jason Falls, an insurance agent and owner of Falls Insurance in Kings Mountain, told the Observer: “I’m not trying to present a political position. I’m trying to accurately portray experiences (of clients)…There’s definitely more concern out there than comfort.”

He said some clients will receive “substantial subsidies” for premiums from the federal government. In some cases, their insurance rates “will be lower than what they’ve been paying before, and in some cases will have more coverage than they’ve had before.”

But in other cases, he said families will face “challenges not only because of (higher) premiums but because of the change of coverage.”

In his written remarks, Falls said: “I have serious concerns about ‘Obamacare.’…My friends and neighbors … are confused, concerned, mad and fed up.”

In his testimony in 2011, Gauss predicted that he would have to close the doors of his staffing company if the health care law went into effect as written. But on Thursday, Gauss said he has changed that previous testimony because the employer mandate has been postponed and other parts of the law have changed.

“I might have to close my doors because of Obamacare in addition to the increased employment taxes from the state of North Carolina and the federal government. …It’s kind of hard to tell.”

Question of intent

Brenner, from Progress North Carolina, cited the hearing’s title as an indication of its intention – “Obamacare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums for Health Care Coverage.”

“This is not a credible hearing. Everybody knows it,” Brenner said.

A Charlottean who had hoped to testify but who will now be speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, is Allison Ward, 57, who was laid off from her job as an executive assistant at one of Charlotte’s major banks in 2005.

Ward, who submitted a written request to testify but said she didn’t hear back from the committee, said she hasn’t had health insurance since she got laid off.

She has worked on and off at seasonal or temporary jobs that pay about $9 an hour, not enough to afford health insurance, she says. She said she had to give up her apartment and live with her 84-year-old mother.

“Before the Great Recession, I relied upon myself. I made 43 grand a year. Now these forces that are outside my control are stopping me from getting basic health care and a good job with decent pay.

“This employee-based health care that we have now, I’m cut off from it. That’s what I wanted to say (to the committee). …My president sees what’s happening, and he makes a huge effort to make sure he gets this unprecedented thing done. And then in North Carolina, it’s being obstructed.” Researcher Maria David contributed.

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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