Amid congressional efforts to partially or wholly repeal the Affordable Care Act and roll back the Medicaid expansion, more than 60 Montanans met Saturday afternoon at Missoula's Senior Center for a town hall meeting in support of saving health care.
The event was sponsored by progressive organizations Missoula Rises; March On, Montana; Montana Women Vote; Planned Parenthood; the Democratic Socialists of America, and Blue Mountain Clinic, and included speakers from various local organizations.
Sarah Howell, executive director of Montana Women Vote, explained to the audience what the impacts of an ACA repeal would mean for Montanans. Howell said that according to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 142,000 Montanans would lose their health insurance, while another 10,599 Montanans would lose their jobs.
Howell said 20 percent of Montanans were uninsured five years ago, but since the ACA, that number has dropped to 6 percent. More than 100,000 Montanans are covered because of the ACA, and Howell said half of Montana's population is covered by the ACA, Medicaid, Medicare or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Congress must decide by the end of September whether to reauthorize CHIP.
"Health care has gotten better," Howell said, adding that if these programs are repealed, thousands will be left without coverage. "People are going to die."
Howell urged the audience to call, email and write to Montana representatives in support of health care. Tables at the meeting with free sheets of representatives' contact information and scripts were provided by Indivisible Montana, an organization dedicated to making it easy for people to contact government officials.
The Missoula meeting came after, and in solidarity, with dozens of other town hall meetings and rallies for health care across the country, some of which have turned rowdy as people demand information on the fate of the ACA, and on what might replace it.
While the national pushback has left some Republicans wary, congressional GOP leaders plan to continue with their efforts to repeal the health care law and other policies instituted by former President Barack Obama.
Some Republicans have skipped town halls altogether.
Organizers said while Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines declined to comment for the forum on Montana's health care concerns, Sen. John Tester provided a letter that was read aloud. Tester wrote that a vote to repeal the ACA is a vote to return to the same broken system of the past, when "families couldn't afford to get sick."
Beth Gherlein, co-owner of Missoula bakery Tandem Doughnuts, said she and her husband lived most of their adult lives without health insurance until the ACA. The couple had always wanted a child, but couldn't without coverage.
The ACA gave Gherlein and her husband the freedom to have a daughter and start a small business, which now has a commercial bakery and five employees. But if Gherlein's health care is repealed, she said the couple will have to close Tandem Doughnuts and find jobs with health insurance benefits.
"As parents," Gherlein said, "we can't afford to not have health insurance."
Vicky Byrd of the Nurses Union said many of the patients she's spoken with about health care seem confused about the titles and nicknames given to different programs. While everyone seems to support the ACA, Byrd said the same people want Obamacare repealed.
"People don't know the ACA and Obamacare are the same thing," Byrd said.
Denver Henderson spoke on behalf of the Service Employees International Union, saying a repeal of the ACA would not only be hard on patients, but would negatively affect service employees who work as caregivers, but weren't covered before the ACA.
Henderson said the SEIU worked for years to rally support for the original drafts of the ACA, which is thousands of pages and took years of work to complete. All that work is now facing repeal, Henderson said, and small rural communities will be hit hardest, losing jobs, small hospitals and clinics.
"This may sound hopeless, but I hope that's not what you take away," Henderson said. "Because if we all stand together, we can stop this. If we don't, we will lose."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.