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US Rep, a Marine veteran, defends his vocal slam of Republican health care bill

May 15, 2017
In The News

“Where’s the score?”

shouted the question to House Speaker Paul Ryan during debate on the Republican health care bill and – not for the first time – earned myself a reprimand. But the real transgression against the best traditions of the House wasn’t my boisterous inquiry. Instead, it was the Republican leadership’s insistence on forcing a vote on a bill that will transform one-sixth of the American economy without meaningful hearings and without an estimate, or "score," of its impact by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.   

As we all know, haste makes waste. And it has already become painfully clear that in their rush to pass this disastrous legislation, Republicans committed an error in judgement that could have a grave implications for our nation’s veterans.

My occasional lack of decorum might have something to do with the fact that I used to be a grunt in the Marine Corps. I served in the Iraq War and like millions of other former service members, I’m eligible for care through the Veterans Affairs Department. Luckily, as a Member of Congress, I don’t need to worry about my health insurance, but under the flawed Republican health care bill, many of my fellow veterans may not be so lucky. 

The problem is that the legislation explicitly denies tax credits intended to help Americans pay for insurance in the individual market to people who are already eligible for other low-cost federal health care programs. While this provision justifiably encompasses Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, it would also inadvertently block as many as 7 million veterans who qualify for care through the VA from receiving this assistance, potentially denying them the option of carrying private health care coverage. 

Republicans weren’t oblivious to this concern. In fact, an earlier version of their health care bill included an exemption that explicitly permitted veterans who are not enrolled at the VA to receive these tax credits.   

However, because this critical carve-out for vets would run afoul of Senate rules that allow certain legislation to be passed with a simple majority, the Republican leadership apparently decided to discard it. In the mad rush to repeal Obamacare, the health care options of millions of veterans apparently became just another headache to be dealt with later. 

Confronted by this dereliction of duty, Republicans – including the chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee, Phil Roe – are now arguing that a Treasury Department rule instituted under the previous Administration will obviate concerns about veteran eligibility for tax credits. But this regulatory action was tied to the Affordable Care Act, the law that the Republican health care bill was specifically designed to repeal and replace. And any effort to implement a new rule on behalf of veterans will face a significant hurdle in the form of an anti-regulatory executive order signed by President Trump.

Of course, the tortured excuses and explanations offered by Chairman Roe and others wouldn’t be necessary if Republicans had proceeded in a more patient and thoughtful manner. Instead of conducting extensive hearings and markups to refine the legislation, as Democrats did while developing the Affordable Care Act, they raced to meet an arbitrary and irresponsible timetable. The result was an unforced error – the absence of clear language in the legislation to protect veterans. 

Yet, even if my Republican colleagues manage to fix this glaring deficiency, the GOP health care bill will still be an unmitigated disaster for the courageous men and women who fought for our country in uniform. Millions of veterans who depend on Medicaid will be hurt by the massive cuts included in the Republican plan. In addition, former service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other “pre-existing conditions” will be thrown into new high-risk pools and could see their health care costs skyrocket. 

Even veterans who receive coverage through their employers could be exposed to new hardships under the GOP plan thanks to a provision that will allow states to opt out of insurance market regulations that impose lifetime limits and eliminate the out-of-pocket cost cap.     

Our heroes deserve better.  We owe them not just outstanding health care, but also a fair, open, transparent process here in Congress when we debate legislation that could profoundly affect their lives and their families. 

House Republicans should beware – if their abysmal health care bill is signed into law, I won’t be the only veteran shouting about it.  

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq with  Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.  He represents Arizona’s 7th  congressional district and serves on the House Armed Services Committee. Learn more about other veterans-turned-lawmakers via the Congressional Veterans Caucus.