Rural Kansans pepper Jerry Moran with health care questions at town hall

Town hall anger over health care bill
Town hall anger over health care bill

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Story highlights

  • Close to 150 people attended one of the few town halls a Republican senator is hosting
  • Sen. Jerry Moran took questions at the town hall for nearly an hour and a half

Palco, Kansas (CNN)Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said Thursday he's still opposed to the current Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, telling a packed town hall in northwest Kansas that he's concerned about the bill's impact on the state's rural population.

"What I would say is that I would not vote for the bill that's in front of the Senate today," he told a gaggle of reporters outside after the event, as sweat dripped down his brow on a summer day that got well into the 90s. "I've outlined broad criteria by which I would judge a bill, and we'll see if any, if that bill changes in a way that I find satisfactory."
About 150 people crammed into a room here in Palco — a community with close to 300 residents -- to attend one of the only town halls being held by a Republican senator during this week's holiday recess.
    Attendees peppered Moran with polite, though detailed, questions about the plan. Unlike many Republican town halls this year, Moran's event struck a tone of patience and friendly discourse, with few interruptions and boo's from those who disagreed with him.
    The exchanges Moran endured with activists were hardly testy, even as a woman stood next to him the whole time, holding a large poster with cartoonish faces of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, under the caption: "When you lose your health care, remember who took it away."
    Those who live in the Palco area expressed surprise at the national media presence, and Moran, who grew up in nearby Plainville, took the opportunity to plug his favorite deli down the street -- the only restaurant in town -- telling reporters to grab some chicken-fried steak on their way out.
    Moran said he couldn't predict whether the Senate was close to coming to a vote after the body reconvenes next week.
    "I can't tell. I think there are many senators -- more senators than that are having town hall meetings -- more senators out there that have genuine concerns with this legislation," he told reporters.
    Moran, who took questions at the town hall for nearly an hour and a half, said the Senate needs to find a way to still take care of those who benefited from Obamacare but also solve problems for people who were negatively affected by the law -- a proposition he called "difficult" and "almost impossible" to resolve with 51 votes in the Senate.
    Moran at one point during the town hall said the rhetoric between the two parties was to blame for the standoff in Washington, saying when Republicans use the word "repeal," Democrats quickly retreat and refuse to budge an inch. "The rhetoric puts us into the corners of ring," he said.
    Asked what he thought about Trump's suggestion to repeal Obamacare now then work on a replacement measure later, Moran expressed skepticism that it could work but also hinted that it might spur senators into action.
    "Maybe if that happened, it would be the desire on the part of all members of the US Senate to work together to find a replacement," he said. "That would be very appealing."
    Moran wouldn't say whether he's been in talks with Republican leadership during the recess.
    McConnell, who can only afford to lose two Republicans to pass the bill, faces a tough battle of trying to win over a group of at least 10 Republicans -- including Moran -- who currently oppose the bill for a wide variety of reasons that spans the ideological spectrum.
    While Republican leaders were hoping to hold a vote before the Senate broke for recess, McConnell announced last week that it would delay the vote and continue negotiations. That decision came as more GOP opposition was bubbling up and a CBO score estimated 22 million people would lose health insurance by 2026 under the plan.
    Shortly after McConnell announced the delay, Moran posted on Twitter that he was one of the Republicans who opposed the current draft and praised the decision to postpone action on the bill.

    Town hall questions

    While chairs were prepared for 65 people, an overflow crowd stood on the sidelines of the room and spilled out of two doorways at the event site, a youth and activity center. Some expressed disappointment that Moran didn't hold the town hall in more populated cities in western Kansas, like Salina or Hays. (Moran has two more town halls on Friday, one in Liberal, Kansas, and one in Sublette, Kansas.)
    Many attendees came from nearby counties in this rural part of the state and as far away as Kansas City, a four-hour drive.
    "I didn't recognize a lot of people in there," said Cheryl Hall of nearby Osborne.
    Armed with substantive questions, many asked about nuanced policies in the bill, particularly when it comes to Medicaid and pre-existing conditions.
    Moran, who openly admitted whenever he didn't know enough about a specific question, spoke in broader terms about what he was looking for, saying he wants a bill that maintains coverage for pre-existing conditions (a key component of Obamacare) while also reduces premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.
    "That ought to be the goal -- repair, replace, whatever the words are people use today," he said. "The question is there something that can be done and I await that conclusion."
    Asked about legislation in the bill that would allow states to opt out of requirements for coverage of essential health benefits, Moran said he's "very interested in making sure pre-existing conditions are covered."
    "And I wouldn't consider it covered if it could be taken away in some other fashion," he said. "Who in the room doesn't have a pre-existing condition? Don't we all?"
    He was critical of Medicaid cuts in the bill that would affect states like Kansas that didn't implement Medicaid expansion. "We get punished and pay a higher price for states that did it differently, so that's troublesome for me," he said, arguing that Medicaid funds were essential for rural areas like Palco with large elderly populations.
    In the last fiscal year, roughly 390,000 people on average each month in Kansas received Medicaid funds, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
    Activist groups started targeting Moran early on after he began hinting that he wasn't fully on board with the Republican plan, especially compared to fellow Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who's offered full-throated support.
    He also made a heavy pitch for not only more money for cancer research to the National Institutes of Health, but also more money for those seeking treatment from trials and therapies conducted in the research that's being funded.
    "If we are doing all this research to find a cure for cancer ... you also have to have in place the necessary financial ability for people to participate in the program, otherwise what I'm doing is advocating a cure for cancer for people who are wealthy ... and people who can't afford it don't get the benefits."
    Multiple people proposed a "Medicare for all" solution, which is another term for single payer health care. The idea got energetic applause whenever it was brought up at the event, though Moran didn't endorse the proposal.
    While he called for more transparency and inclusion in the legislative process of the bill, he said he would still vote on it even if there were no public hearings, as long as the bill "can get to the point that it satisfies" his requirements.
    Moran, like many Republicans, has also seen pressure from conservative groups that opposes the current bill because it doesn't go far enough in repealing Obamacare.

    Bipartisan tone

    Mentioned nearly as much as health care was a desire for more cooperation and bipartisanship in Washington. Moran lamented the divisive tone in the nation's capitol and sought to shed any rigid ideological labels.
    "While I am a member of the Republican Party, ... I am member of the minority, and that minority is Kansas. That minority is rural. And it doesn't matter, I need to find allies, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, to work on issues that affect rural America because there's just not enough of us who care about these issues," he said.
    In some non-subtle jabs at Trump, Moran blatantly praised the media's role in discovering government corruption, and at one point tried to accommodate a radio reporter by standing closer to his microphone.
    "Not everyone is arguing with the press," he said, to large applause.
    Asked more directly by one attendee, who described himself as a Democratic socialist, to address the President's explosive rhetoric, Moran spoke at length about a need for more "presidential" leadership. Moran, without mentioning the President's name, alluded to Trump's tweets as "offensive" and "insolent" comments that "diminish the chances of finding common ground."
    "We need leadership, presidential and otherwise, in this country that brings us together, not pulls us apart," he said.
    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this this story misstated the population of Palco, Kansas. It is 278 according to 2016 population estimates from US Census data.