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Health Care Debate Heats Up In Mitch McConnell's Home State Of Kentucky


Congress returns to Washington this week. Senate Republicans are still looking for a way to find 50 votes to pass its version of a bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It hasn't been easy. The bill is extremely unpopular. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports from Kentucky, a state that was one of Obamacare's greatest success stories.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Kentucky's senior senator, Mitch McConnell, is trying to guide the GOP health care bill through the Senate. But even in his solidly Republican home state, McConnell's effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act isn't universally popular.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, health care blues, I ain't...

KEITH: Last night, more than 2,000 people gathered in a convention center in Covington, Ky., for a rally to fight the GOP health care bill organized by Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Brian Friedel drove 90 minutes from Kentucky's capital in part to send a message to McConnell.

BRIAN FRIEDEL: Basically fight for our health care rights. That's pretty much what I'm doing here.

KEITH: Last week he went to McConnell's office to protest, but the majority leader wasn't there. Friedel is 49 years old and has been only marginally employed for years.

FRIEDEL: I used to do construction. And then I hurt my neck, so I can't do that anymore.

KEITH: He got insurance through Medicaid expansion a couple of years ago. Under the Affordable Care Act, states could choose whether to expand who was covered by the health insurance program for the poor. Kentucky opted in. But for Friedel, it wasn't a magical fix to all that ails him. It took a while to get connected with a primary care physician and actually see a doctor. Those are the kinds of challenges Republicans often point to in critiquing Obamacare. The GOP bill would phase out the expansion of Medicaid that brought coverage to more than 400,000 Kentuckians. And Friedel is afraid of what would happen if he loses insurance again because his blood pressure is through the roof.

FRIEDEL: I don't know. Maybe I have a heart attack and die. But how many other people that have even more strenuous conditions than I are going to have to die as a result of this?

KEITH: This morning at a nearby shop called Covington Coffee, I asked Joe Nagle if he had any thoughts about the GOP health care bill, and the thoughts tumbled out fast. Nagle has been mostly unemployed for more than a decade and about two years ago, without insurance, found himself in the emergency room.

JOE NAGLE: And as soon as I got there, you know, they came in and registered me right away. As I was laying there, getting my liquids, they had me hooked up. That was September 1, 2015. It was a watershed day for me.

KEITH: The health insurance he registered for is Medicaid. Nagle says it changed his life.

NAGLE: Since then, I've had everything I need. I mean I don't take advantage of it. But when I need to see a doctor, I get there, and that's because of the Affordable Care Act. I wish people could get the kind of care I get.

KEITH: Drea Holbert was dropping in for coffee on her way to work. She voted for President Trump, but now she has mixed feelings about the health care debate underway in Washington. She gets insurance through her employer.

DREA HOLBERT: So I pay, like, a hundred and almost $40 every two weeks out of my paycheck for me and my three kids to have health care. And it's not even that good of health care.

KEITH: She says her aunt's family got coverage through Obamacare, and it's worse.

HOLBERT: And it's really hard for them to find doctors that actually accept it.

KEITH: But Holbert doesn't like what she's hearing about the GOP health care bill.

HOLBERT: I don't think that'll work either. I think hopefully they can take a look at what, like, Canada is doing and even Cuba.

KEITH: A single-payer, government-run system like that isn't under serious consideration in Washington right now. But it's not clear what, if anything, McConnell and Senate Republicans will be able to agree on. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Covington, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.