The Protect Our Care bus, which is touring 39 states to promote legislation that advocates say would expand health care access and reduce costs. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Cancer and Congress catapulted Laura Packard into being a health care activist.
Packard credits the insurance coverage she had through the Affordable Care Act with saving her life. When the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to repeal the health insurance law shortly after her 2017 diagnosis with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Packard felt compelled to fight for preserving and improving the law.
Before the ACA made it possible for her to obtain comprehensive health insurance that she could afford, “I used to have junk insurance,” Packard said in an interview Friday. “So without the ACA, I would have been bankrupt or dead.”
Now she campaigns for legislation to make health insurance more comprehensive and more affordable. On Friday, that brought her to Milwaukee and then Madison as part of a 39-state bus tour by the health care advocacy organization Protect Our Care.
The organization is conducting the bus tour to spotlight federal legislation that is Protect Our Care’s priority this year. It has conducted similar tours in 2019 and 2020, and Packard has taken part in those as well.
At the top of the priority list, said Joe Zepecki of Protect Our Care’s Wisconsin branch, is the $3.5 billion budget reconciliation package that is tied to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure agenda.
The bill includes a measure authored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Georgia Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff to provide a completely federally funded equivalent to Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Wisconsin and Georgia are two of 12 states that have refused to accept Medicaid expansion, as Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ repeated attempts to do so have been blocked by Republicans in the state Legislature.
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The bus tour aims to spotlight other health care issues as well, he said. Those include legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies as well as proposals to make permanent expanded subsidies for insurance plans purchased under the ACA. The additional subsidies were included in the American Rescue Plan Act COVID relief legislation passed earlier this year.
A decade after the ACA’s passage, Zepecki said, “Republicans are obstructing common-sense health care reforms and Democrats are fighting for them.”
At the Madison stop Friday afternoon, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul joined a group of speakers who pushed that message. Kaul, as he frequently does, noted that he pulled Wisconsin out of a lawsuit to overturn the ACA — the same lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court turned away in June.
The attorney general called on the state Legislature’s GOP majority to reverse its previous stance and accept the ACA Medicaid expansion — and if it doesn’t, for Congress to pass Baldwin’s alternative legislation. “It’s vital as we rebuild from a pandemic that Wisconsinites can have as much access to affordable health insurance coverage as possible,” Kaul said.
State Sen. Melissa Agard, who also joined the event, called improving health care access a moral issue as well as an economically sound one. “No one should ever have to choose between affording their own health care or medication and putting food on their table or being able to buy their kids new shoes to go back to school,” Agard said.
Another speaker was Patrick DePula, proprietor of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, a group of Madison restaurants, and a member of the Main Street Alliance, which represents small business owners who favor progressive policymaking.
DePula called the ACA “essentially an economic development tool” that made it possible for more employees to have health insurance — especially since the subsidies were expanded under ARPA. “If these [expanded] subsidies were made permanent, 4.2 million uninsured people would gain coverage, and millions more will continue to save on health care.” DePula said. “That also would be a huge help to millions of Main Street small businesses across the country.”
When it was Packard’s turn to speak, she reiterated her appreciation for the ACA — but also pointed to some limitations that remain.
During her cancer treatment, her oncologist had prescribed a medication to boost her immune system. Unable to afford the $13,000 price tag, she had to forgo the drug, which she says could have prevented a near-fatal infection she subsequently got.
“This specific drug I was prescribed was built on research we as taxpayers already paid for — as most major drugs are,” Packard said, advocating for legislation to lower prescription costs. “So why are we paying again and again, more than anyone else in the world? We have got to do better.”
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