TAMPA – The political battle over the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” came to Tampa Wednesday as national interest groups for and against the health care reform law held events designed to drum up public support.
With major parts of the law about to take effect, the conservative Heritage Action for America and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint held a “Defund Obamacare Town Hall” at a downtown hotel.
DeMint told an enthusiastic crowd of 700 or more, many from the local tea party movement, that Republicans should end funding for Obamacare even if the result is shutting down the federal government -- a controversial position even among Republicans.
“This is winnable, despite what you hear from the consultants on TV,” DeMint said. He heaped almost as much scorn on “establishment Republicans” reluctant to risk a government shutdown as he did on President Barack Obama, calling them “afraid to have a showdown with someone who's tearing up our country.”
Just a few hours before the Heritage town hall, pro-Obamacare advocates held their own pre-emptive press conference at another hotel nearby.
They sought to counter what they called “dangerous propaganda” with personal stories from a St. Petersburg physician and a University of South Florida graduate student who said she has benefitted from the law.
“The opponents of the law are mounting a campaign for people to not get health insurance,” said physician Mona Mangat. She said she's educating her uninsured patients about the law, which requires all Americans to have health insurance by next year.
The public health student, Megan Milanese, 24, of St. Petersburg, told the gathering she is being covered by her parents' health care plan while in school because Obamacare requires allowing children to stay on their parents' plans until 26.
“As a student, I can't tell you how valuable that is,” she said.
The Obamacare backers repeatedly condemned Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like DeMint, advocates shutting down the government if necessary to halt the health care reform.
Scott, a wealthy former hospital chain executive, began his political career by forming a private political committee to run ads attacking the health plan before it was passed. As governor, he has refused to allow the state government to implement parts of it, even though he called unsuccessfully for expansion of the state's Medicaid program with funding from the law.
Some attendees at the Heritage event expressed disappointment at the apparent absence of any local elected officeholders.
Rubio, a close political ally of DeMint, was on a fundraising trip to California.
“I think they ought to be here and listen to what we have to say since they're not holding their own town halls,” said Dee Williams, a veteran Sun City Center Republican activist, repeating a charge by both liberals and conservatives against Congress members during the August recess.
DeMint repeated many criticisms of the health care plan that backers say are false – that it will cause people to lose their current, employer-provided health care plans; and that large numbers of doctors are starting to refuse to treat Medicare patients as the law goes into effect.
He hinted that the plan was part of a plan to “control” the U.S. population under “the pretense of giving people better health and health care.”
Dictators and tyrants, he said, believe “health care is the best way to control the people ... President Obama and his supporters are more interested in control than anything else.”
The plan's backers called such allegations “dangerous propaganda.”
“They are willing to shut the government down because they lost, that the Supreme Court ruled against them … and because President Obama won re-election,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change.
Woodhouse singled out Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who on Tuesday questioned how the new insurance marketplaces to be set up under the plan can protect consumer information from identity theft.
“We're here to tell people like Rick Scott and the Attorney General to back off … Don't scare people,” he said.
State Rep. Betty Reid of Tampa challenged Republicans to let the process get underway so problems with the law can be identified and fixed.
“I don't think at this point the Affordable Care Act is perfect. There are glitches,” Reid said. “Along the way, I have no doubt we will need to make improvements.”
Some of the law's changes, including requiring that health policies insurance cover free preventive care and allow children to stay on family policies to age 26, already have begun. More controversial parts are about to begin, including the requirement to have health insurance or face a penalty on 2014 tax returns that will amount to $95 or 1 percent of a person's income, whichever is higher. The penalties would increase in future years.
The law also sets up an online Health Care Marketplace, opening Oct. 1, where those with no insurance can shop for it. Prices will vary based on income, with subsidies available for those making less than about $46,000 a year – part of the spending DeMint and his allies want to “defund.”
Businesses can also face penalties for not offering health insurance to fulltime workers.