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Kansas Town Hall Crowd Gives Jenkins An Earful On Health Reform

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins speaks to a crowd Monday at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

Kansas 2nd District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins was jeered Monday at a town hall meeting in Lawrence for defending President Donald Trump and the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Jenkins, a five-term Republican who has announced that she won’t run for re-election in 2018, maintained a tight smile throughout the raucous meeting at the Dole Institute of Politics on the University of Kansas campus. The crowd, estimated around 350 people, regularly interrupted her with boos and shouts of “that’s not true” as she attempted to defend the American Health Care Act, the ACA replacement bill backed by Trump and GOP congressional leaders.

It was clear from the outset that Jenkins was in for a rough afternoon. The crowd waved red signs that read “disagree” as she mounted her opening defense of the GOP replacement legislation.

“The intent is to provide transition rules so that no one that has health care is thrown off their health care and folks that don’t have coverage are able to get coverage,” Jenkins said.

As she was speaking, members of the crowd were searching their cell phones for a just-released Congressional Budget Office report that estimated the Republican bill would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 14 million in the first year and by 24 million over 10 years.

Read the CBO cost estimate of the American Health Care Act. 

When Jenkins questioned the accuracy of the report, Chris Johnston of Ottawa confronted her for echoing the talking points being used by White House officials and Republican congressional leaders.

“I want to hear you and every other person tell the truth about the Congressional Budget Office,” Johnston said.

In response, Jenkins pivoted to a criticism of the ACA, saying that it failed to live up to promises made by President Barack Obama and its supporters.

“From the very beginning we were sold some lies,” Jenkins said to an escalating chorus of boos. “The lie of the year was, ‘If you liked what you had, you could keep it,’ and that was proven not to be the truth.”

Rising premiums and the diminishing number of insurance companies willing to offer plans in the ACA marketplace are proof that the health reform law commonly known as Obamacare isn’t working, Jenkins said.

Access To Insurance

Several people in the audience challenged that assertion by talking about the importance of their ACA coverage and criticizing the decision by Gov. Sam Brownback to reject Medicaid expansion.

Janella Williams said she wouldn’t have been able to overcome her health problems, start a small business and become “a contributing member of society” without the coverage she was able to purchase in the ACA marketplace despite her pre-existing conditions.

“I have a medical condition that I’ve had since 1995, when I was 29 years old, and if I don’t get treatments every seven weeks, I will lose the use of my left hand, my left side and my right foot,” Williams said.

Jenkins, like fellow Republicans, including Kansas 1st District Congressman Roger Marshall, said restoring state-based high-risk pools would ensure that people with pre-existing conditions could continue to get coverage.

However, Jean Hall, a University of Kansas professor who has written extensively about high-risk pools for several national health policy organizations, said they didn’t work when 35 states, including Kansas and Missouri, operated them prior to the ACA.

“What we found in Kansas was that premiums were very high and coverage was very limited,” Hall said. “So, you have people with chronic conditions who don’t have access to very comprehensive care.”

Unconventional Style

While health care dominated the discussion, it wasn’t the only point of contention. Several people also expressed anger at Trump for making false claims, attacking the media and being unwilling to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Trump’s love affair with Putin and Russia is treasonous in my opinion,” said Chad Smith of Lawrence, while asking Jenkins to “put country ahead of politics” by supporting the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate a series of allegations about Russian involvement in the presidential election.

Jenkins said she would support the establishment of an independent commission, but only if investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees determine the need for one.

“If they (the committees) think we need to do it, then we need to do it,” Jenkins said, adding that she agreed that “Russia is a problem” and “Putin is a thug.”

More generally, Jenkins defended Trump. She said while he wasn’t her pick for the GOP nomination and that she doesn’t “agree with his early-morning tweeting,” his unconventional style is what appealed to many voters, including a majority in the congressional district that she represents.

“I guess I’m not particularly concerned if we get results, if we get the economy moving, people back to work, fix the health care system,” she said before getting drowned out by boos.

Pam Ensley, a retired teacher from Topeka, was among the last to speak. She criticized Jenkins for sticking to political talking points and not providing detailed answers.

“So, if you have any sway with Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, who think they know better than we do, tell them people in Kansas are damn mad,” Ensley said to cheers.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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