Pa. U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly on ‘Medicare for All’: ‘This is a scary place that we’re going right now’

U.S. Rep Mike Kelly. (Oversight and Reform Committee/Flickr)

WASHINGTON — Two Pennsylvania lawmakers embody the deep divide on health care policy in the U.S. Congress.

On one side: Rep. Brendan Boyle, a second-term Democrat representing the 2nd District in northeast Philadelphia. He’s backing “Medicare for All” legislation and accuses the GOP of using “scare tactics” to pan Democrats’ health care proposals.

On the other: Rep. Mike Kelly, a fifth-term Republican whose 16th District encompasses a large swath of western Pennsylvania. He thinks Democrats’ health care policies are being unduly influenced by a heated 2020 election cycle, and he warns that the party is wading into a “scary place” with Medicare for All proposals.

The Pennsylvanians’ divisions were on stark display Wednesday at a House Ways and Means committee hearing about congressional efforts to secure universal health coverage.

Boyle said Republicans are using “literally the same rhetoric” to criticize Democrats’ health care policies that they employed nearly a decade ago when the Affordable Care Act was being debated.

“Socialism, government takeover of health care. They haven’t gotten to death panels in this hearing at least, but that was one of the other phrases,” Boyle said.

The rhetoric wasn’t new then, he added, calling criticisms of the Affordable Care Act “warmed-over talking points” from Republican opposition to Medicare in the 1960s. “So it is, I guess, a sense of progress that some of our friends are concerned about saving the Medicare program, a program they fought so hard against half a century ago,” he said. 

Some Republicans opposed to a Medicare for All program, including President Donald Trump, say it will hurt the existing Medicare program for seniors. The Washington Post’s fact-checker called this claim a “scare scenario” when made by Trump in an op-ed. 

Boyle is one of four Pennsylvania Democrats in the U.S. House co-sponsoring Medicare for All legislation, which would expand access to the government-run insurance program that now covers Americans over age 65. The others are Reps. Matt Cartwright, of the 8th District; Mike Doyle, of the 18th District; and Susan Wild, of the 7th District.

Boyle lauded the Affordable Care Act for reducing the number of uninsured Americans, but said “we obviously still have progress to go.”

In 2018, 28.9 million Americans didn’t have health insurance, an increase of 1.4 million from 2016, Vox reported, citing figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

Lawmakers on Wednesday heard testimony from Rebecca Wood, a Massachusetts mother whose daughter was delivered early — weighing just one pound, 12 ounces — due to Wood’s severe preeclampsia. Her child’s medical complications meant that Wood had to choose between her daughter’s therapy and her own asthma medication.

“Choices like these really aren’t impossible. I choose to pay for hers and go without mine,” Wood said, urging Congress to recognize health care as a human right.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the Ways and Means committee, blasted House Republicans for their repeated attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, instead offering what he called, “half-baked proposals that won’t bring down the cost, nor will they expand coverage.” Neal stressed that he’s interested in exploring a range of ideas about health care policies, including a public option and Medicaid “buy-ins.”

Kelly defended Republicans’ position on health care policies.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this dais today that doesn’t want to see Americans have health care,” he said. “But I think the real question is: Is it just having health care or is it quality health care? Are we giving people a choice of what it is they want?”

Kelly claimed that Medicare for All means “quality care for none.” He added, “This is a scary place that we’re going right now.” He was then interrupted by a protester in the hearing room, to which he replied, “This does bring out the best and sometimes the worst in people.”

Kelly has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act. On his congressional website, he touts his efforts to “repeal and defund this disastrous law.”

The Republican congressman on Wednesday said the 2020 presidential campaign has further polarized the already contentious health care debate.

“We can work together to get this done as long as we make it about policy and not politics,” Kelly said. “There’s opportunity for great things to be done. Unfortunately, we’re in an election cycle right now, especially in a primary cycle, that doesn’t allow us to do the things that we know are right for America.”

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