HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Rep. Greg Walden is one of the Republican House leaders who crafted the measure to overhaul the health-care system that dramatically imploded before lawmakers went home for a two-week recess.
But when faced with a large crowd of angry constituents in his district this week, the Oregon Republican seemed reluctant to claim the legislation as his own. Instead, Walden stressed the parts of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that he wants to keep.
That did not stop about 1,500 of his constituents who packed this liberal area at two town halls on Wednesday from slamming the congressman for wanting to overhaul Obamacare in a state that heavily relies on it.
“Why don’t you go back to Washington, [and] in the spirit of bipartisanship, grow a pair, sit down with [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and say, ‘Let’s fix Obamacare,’ ” said one middle-aged man at Columbia Gorge Community College, where about 500 people gathered.
A few in the rowdy crowd at the next town hall seemed to know that Walden, as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, played a pivotal role in crafting the GOP’s American Health Care Act, which would have rolled back Obamacare’s system of subsidies and phased out that law’s Medicaid expansion.
“It was an embarrassment and a disaster,” said one attendee at Hood River Middle School, where 1,000 people showed up, prompting applause across the auditorium. “You don’t make the plan better by taking away insurance for 24 million people across the nation.”
Like many House Republicans, Walden has spent the past seven years attacking Obamacare and promising to repeal and replace it if the GOP secured one-party rule in Washington. But now that Walden has his wish, eliminating Obamacare is proving extremely difficult and politically dangerous.
That was certainly the case at home this week in his sprawling eastern Oregon 2nd District, which he won with a comfortable 72 percent of the vote in November. Walden held events in Hood River and Wasco counties, the least conservative areas that he represents — winning in Hood by just five votes in the last election. When he asked participants at the community college whether they voted for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the presidential election, the vast majority raised their hands.
But President Trump won Walden’s district by nearly 20 points — a fact Walden pointed out at one particularly heated point on Wednesday.
Yet not even Trump’s role in pushing the GOP health-care plan prompted Walden — an ally of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — to embrace it. He responded to most health-care questions by touting the popular portions of Obamacare the GOP plan would retain, including preventing insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ plans.
Walden insisted that Republicans will work with Democrats on future health-care issues, although their presence has so far been conspicuously absent in negotiations around the GOP plan.
“There is a lot of reform with health care that is being done on a bipartisan basis and will be done on a bipartisan basis,” was all Walden told one attendee at the community college, before moving on to another question.
The only GOP lawmaker from Oregon, Walden finds himself in the same tricky position as several other House Republicans who have pledged to get rid of Obamacare but whose constituents heavily rely on it. Oregon expanded Medicaid as part of the law, and it now covers about one-fourth of all residents. It has also sought to innovate when it comes to that program.
Experts said that the GOP health plan would stem federal funding to states such as Oregon. It would replace Obamacare’s income-based subsidies with age-based ones and phase out the Medicaid expansion, as well as limit the amount the federal government pays states for the program for low-income Americans. The GOP plan would largely scrap the law’s taxes and requirements to buy insurance.
The proposed changes to Medicaid would be pronounced in states such as Oregon, which is already struggling to fund its program after greatly expanding eligibility. The state has tried to lower overall Medicaid costs by employing a dozen or so Cooperative Care Organizations, which contract with the state to insure enrollees. These groups are tasked with improving patients’ overall health.
But those efforts have not been enough, and the state in January announced a $882 million shortfall in its Medicaid program.
“Oregon would have been clobbered by repeal and replace” in the AHCA, said Jeff Goldsmith, a Portland native and health-policy expert who writes for the nonpartisan journal Health Affairs. “Many billions lost, and for a relatively poor state with limited fiscal capacity.”
Walden was most deeply involved in drafting the Medicaid portion of the GOP plan, but he was quick to explain at the town halls how he would have done things differently. The measure should have allowed states to continue expanding their Medicaid programs through 2020 instead of cutting off that opportunity right away, he said.
The issue is becoming increasingly toxic for lawmakers such as Walden, as liberal groups run ads against him and other Republicans supporting the effort. Walden did not refer to the AHCA by name during either of his town halls, nor did he lay out a timeline for when it might eventually get passed.
“There’s no value in me coming to a bad plan that hurts people,” he said, prompting cries of “But you did!” from members of the audience.
Attendees came armed with bright green, orange and yellow signs that read “Agree,” “Disagree” and “Answer the Question.” But they also expressed their feelings out loud throughout both meetings, which erupted frequently with boos and shouts, particularly when Walden appeared to support something Trump has said or done.
He won applause only a few times, chiefly when several constituents thanked him for supporting the military. Many heatedly asked Walden to respond to Trump’s calls for building a wall along the Mexico border, his push for reducing science funding, his moves to ban refugees from majority-Muslim countries and his skepticism of climate change.
“We don’t like climate-change deniers. We need your word you will not desert us on this,” said a woman named Connie.
Walden noted several areas where he’s bucked Trump — including opposing the refugee ban and some elements of Trump’s proposed budget — but he was careful not to directly criticize the president’s style or approach. When he seemed to give Trump a pass on refusing to release his tax returns, people booed loudly.
“It seems to me [that] candidates are better-served when they do make their returns public, but that’s all protected by privacy laws,” Walden said.
The restive crowds did not seem to ruffle Walden, who extended each session to two hours instead of the single hour they were originally scheduled to run.
“Come on, let’s do this the Oregon way — let’s be respectful of each other,” Walden said when interrupted by attendees.
At another point, Walden even succeeded in making the crowd laugh, after a woman with several children asked why he did not criticize Trump more publicly for making derogatory statements about women.
“I don’t speak out every time he says stuff because I don’t have time for that, frankly,” Walden responded.