Sharp opinions about the federal Affordable Care Act were aired Tuesday in Lexington by two conservative groups that said U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell should do more to block implementing the law.
Two events, a U.S. Congressional field hearing and a news conference, underscored just how politically volatile the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, remains for Democrats and Republicans alike as major parts of the law take effect in coming months.
The health-insurance overhaul has become a major issue in Kentucky's 2014 U.S. Senate race, especially in the Republican primary election between McConnell and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
At the Lexington Public Library on Tuesday, the U.S. House's Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pension held a public hearing where several business owners complained of too much uncertainty about the law and expressed fear that it will hurt them financially.
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Their testimony came in front of U.S. Reps. Andy Barr, R-Lexington; Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green; John Yarmuth, D-Louisville; and subcommittee chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
Roe had to warn the sometimes rowdy crowd at least three times that the hearing was not a town hall meeting and that security would oust hecklers.
Lexington restaurant owner Joe Bologna said he is concerned that under Obamacare fewer people will have money to eat out, resulting in loss of jobs at restaurants.
He said he already has reduced his staff from 54 to 47 and is closed on Mondays. He said that his hard-working grandparents raised 11 children without insurance.
Tim Kanaly, owner and president of Gary Force Honda in Bowling Green, said he has had problems getting answers to his questions about Obamacare from Guthrie's office, including whether he will be required to provide health insurance to his employees.
Yarmuth said Kanaly should have called his office. Guthrie later said implementation of the health care law should be delayed until Congress can answer business owners' questions.
John Humkey, president of Employee Benefit Associates Inc. of Lexington, said he fears that the cost for Obamacare will fall mainly on healthy young men, who will have to pay higher premiums to subsidize care for the elderly.
Carrie Banahan, executive director of the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange, which will provide an online marketplace for health-insurance coverage in Kentucky, said the new law will improve the health of Kentuckians. She said that two-thirds of all bankruptcies are related to serious illnesses.
Banahan praised Gov. Steve Beshear for expanding Kentucky's Medicaid rolls under Obamacare to provide health insurance to about 600,000 Kentuckians, beginning Oct. 1.
The most poignant testimony before the congressional panel came from Debbie Basham, with Southwest Breast Cancer Awareness Group in Louisville.
Basham said she had to pay bills totaling about $200,000 for her breast-cancer treatments 17 years ago and has had problems finding insurance coverage ever since.
The new law requires insurance companies to cover all applicants within new minimum standards and offer the same rates regardless of pre-existing conditions or gender.
"You live or die on what kind of insurance you have," Basham said.
Barr told the audience that "cracks in Obamacare are growing deeper and deeper." He noted that President Obama has delayed until after 2014 an employer mandate on providing health insurance.
"If the employer mandate is simply so unworkable that it needs to be delayed until after 2014 — nearly five years after the president signed it into law — why should employers believe that this mandate will become any more acceptable in 2015 and every year thereafter?" Barr asked.
The new law requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to provide government-approved health insurance or pay a $2,000 penalty per employee.
Shortly after the congressional field hearing, two conservative groups held a news conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to kick off the first stop of their "Exempt America Tour." They say they are frustrated with Washington politicians who say they are fighting Obamacare but refuse to defund the law.
The groups have scheduled stops in the next week in Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia.
"We are here today to call on Sen. McConnell to keep his promise of doing everything he can to stop Obamacare by pledging today that he will fight to defund this monstrosity," said Brent Bozell of Virginia, chairman of ForAmerica.
Bozell said McConnell should join other senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, and vote for a one-year budget that funds the government but not Obamacare.
Jenny Beth Martin of Georgia, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said her group is not calling for a shutdown of the federal government to defund Obamacare, but it is advocating a measure to fund government with "just not one dime for Obamacare."
Bozell and Martin were joined by Dr. Frank Simon, a Louisville conservative activist who told the loud crowd, "with God's help, we are going to turn this around."
Bevin, McConnell's GOP primary opponent, attended the news conference but didn't speak. He said afterward that he was there "to hear what people think."
"People are overwhelmingly opposed to the implementation of Obamacare, seeing our dollars wasted on this legislation," Bevin said.
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in an email that there is "nobody in Congress who has done more to fight Obamacare since day one than Mitch McConnell, and any assertion to the contrary is simply incorrect.
"Senator McConnell is a co-sponsor of the repeal bill, a co-sponsor of the defund bill, and has said that if elected majority leader, getting rid of Obamacare will be the first thing on his agenda," Moore said.