Michael Catalini / AP
WILLINGBORO, N.J. — Last month, Republican congressman Tom MacArthur became a major power player in health care. On Wednesday, he was rewarded with five hours of heckles, shouts, insults, and a brief song calling for his election defeat during a tense town hall meeting in his New Jersey district.
MacArthur faced off against an overwhelmingly angry crowd of 300 people in Willingboro a week after House Republicans passed their Obamacare repeal and replacement bill thanks to his amendment. A further 500 here were stuck waiting in line outside. Many others ignored the line and just came to protest.
“I actually voted for him, even though I’m a registered Democrat,” said resident Anne Lyon. “And after I voted for him he has betrayed us.”
MacArthur was little known outside his district until he unexpectedly changed the course of American health care last month. The Republican American Health Care Act was stalled in the House with Democrats, moderate Republicans, and hardline conservatives all opposed to it.
Then MacArthur, a leader of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group, worked directly with the far-right Freedom Caucus to amend the bill. His amendment gave the Freedom Caucus much of what they wanted — letting states waive major Obamacare rules such as the ban on charging higher premiums to people with pre-existing health conditions.
MacArthur’s actions caused anger among other moderates, 20 of whom voted against the AHCA, but it set the groundwork for the bill to pass the House. Moderates in swing states such as MacArthur's may now may bear the brunt of the deeply unpopular bill.
“You lied to us. You said you would not say yes on a bill that cut our health care,” said one resident. MacArthur responded “And I don’t believe I have.”
He is one of the few Republican congressmen holding a town hall during this Congressional break week. A glimpse at his experience made it easy to see why. MacArthur was frequently drowned out by an audience fearful of the return of pre-existing conditions and angry about the threat of losing their health care.
Unable to talk over the storm of anger, MacArthur tried merely to weather it. He appealed that the individual marketplaces set up under Obamacare were becoming unsustainable.
“What happens if it fails? That’s what I was grappling with,” he said. “For that to be a market that survives something has to change?”
But as happened so often that night, someone was ready to yell a response: “How is it more likely to survive if you’re taking money out of the system and giving it back to people in the form of tax cuts?” (The AHCA cuts $840 billion from Medicaid over the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office and distributes about $600 billion in new tax cuts.)
MacArthur started to respond “Well, because the tax cuts perform the same function” before being drowned out by shouts of incredulity.
Still, MacArthur stayed calm and rarely showed flashes of frustration over the long evening. Several people commended him for facing the public in a county that voted for Hillary Clinton. “You’ve really taken a beating tonight,” one elderly woman said.
One theme the crowd kept returning to is a single payer healthcare system. A hush fell over the room when one man talked about his wife who died of brain cancer two months earlier. He had insurance but said he worried about those who fall through the cracks. “I will pay more taxes so that person, that person, that person can get the same care,” he said.
MacArthur insisted the high-risk pools that would be set up by the AHCA are a progressive solution to the problem because they are funded by the broad taxpayer base. These pools would insure people priced out of individual markets because they have pre-existing conditions, but in the past have been badly underfunded and offered weak coverage. Many in the audience insisted over MacArthur’s objections that those conditions would return.
When MacArthur argued against single payer by saying “what I have found is government bureaucrats can be very dangerous when they have power” he was drowned out from shouts by the crowd. Many people mentioned Canada, and stories of relatives there who enjoy universal health care.
While health care took up most of the evening, many people also raised concerns about possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia. They raised the recent firing of FBI Director James Comey and pushed MacArthur to endorse appointing a special prosecutor to take up the investigation.
“We seem to have a pattern that people who are investigating (Trump’s ties to Russia) keep getting fired,” said one woman to laughter and applause. “Do you support an independent investigation?”
MacArthur drew jeers for saying he did not. He said that instead he would wait for current congressional investigations to run their course. That sparked more shouts that those investigations were compromised and starved of resources.
“When are you going to open your eyes? We all see it,” said one man. “When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?”