Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen may have escaped a rowdy crowd by holding a town hall via telephone, but that didn’t stop constituents from repeatedly hammering the New Jersey Republican Tuesday evening over his recent support of the House Obamacare repeal bill.
Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was repeatedly forced during the one-hour event to justify why he voted in favor of the American Health Care Act last week after having opposed an earlier version of the bill.
“Last week I voted for an improved health care act,” Frelinghuysen said during his opening remarks.
Frelinghuysen, a 22-year incumbent, has easily won re-election in the 11th Congressional District, but local and national Democrats are seizing on his health care vote and growing anti-Trump sentiment in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections. Frelinghuysen and Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur were the only members of the New Jersey delegation to support the AHCA.
“Specifically the new, improved bill maintains protections for pre-existing conditions,” Frelinghuysen said, directly addressing one of the main sticking points over the past few weeks.
But multiple callers challenged the idea that people with pre-existing conditions would still be able to afford coverage.
Like a disc jockey on a call-in radio show, Frelinghuysen introduced each caller by first name and town of residence.
“I know you indicate the coverage is going to be available, but at what cost?” asked Erin, from Sparta.
“I’ve actually read the bill,” Frelinghuysen responded, a reference to some members of Congress who were put on the spot by reporters last week and admitted they hadn’t read the measure. “Section 136 of the bill clearly states nothing in this act shall be construed as permitting health insurance issues to limit access to health coverage to individual with pre-existing conditions.”
He did not, however, address the cost issue.
As Erin began to ask a follow-up question, it appeared as though she was cut off.
While the bill says insurers cannot limit coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, it would allow states to apply for waivers from certain Obamacre provisions, which could potentially result in insurers charging sick people higher premiums.
Later, Jeff from Sparta, who identified himself as a longtime Republican, expressed concern about being able to pay for coverage for his wife, who has a pre-existing condition.
“It’s cost-prohibitive,” Jeff said, drawing an analogy to wanting to be able to purchase something rather than actually being able to afford it.
“I’m able to buy a yacht. It’s there. But I cannot afford a yacht,” he said.
The issue of pre-existing conditions, along with the rollback of funding for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion included in the American Health Care Act, has made Frelinghuysen an easy target for Democrats.
As public outrage over Obamacare repeal has grown in recent months, Frelinghuysen has rejected calls to hold in-person town halls and instead opted for call-in forums.
At the same time, liberal activist groups like “NJ 11th for Change” have been holding frequent protests outside his district office in Morristown. The district includes all or parts of Morris, Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started running digital ads against Frelinghuysen earlier this week and has been courting Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon as a potential challenger to Frelinghuysen in 2018.
At one point, Frelinghuysen said he believed in free speech, but said he believed some of the attacks from callers were “highly orchestrated.”
“We’ve been getting calls from around the country that are full of vitriol, full of anger,” he said. “For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off.”