Congressman Jeff Denham Gets Mixed Message on Health Care Law

OAKDALE (AP) — The health care debate that has divided Congress also is dividing a California congressional district that narrowly re-elected Republican Jeff Denham last year while backing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Denham’s constituents have strong opinions about the future of “Obamacare” but they show little enthusiasm for the compromises in the latest Republican attempt to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Moderate Republicans like Denham hold the key to passing or blocking the GOP’s American Health Care Act.

Denham, who expects another difficult re-election campaign, has come out against the law in its current iteration. Whether that helps or hurts him couldn’t be gleaned from interviews with constituents in Manteca, Oakdale and Modesto.

Some said they’d like him to preserve Obama’s law while others want it repealed entirely.

Matt Wright, 39, a golf-cart technician from Oakdale, said he is concerned by an element in the GOP plan that would allow insurance companies in some states to charge more of people with pre-existing conditions.

“Then you end up with the people who would need it most not covered,” Wright said as he finished his beer at Last Call Brewing Company in Oakdale.

Wright bought coverage through Covered California, the state’s Obamacare marketplace, to avoid paying a fine for lacking insurance. He said he’d benefit from changes like those in the GOP health bill that lower costs for healthy people like him while raising them for older and sicker Americans.

“But do I care if it’s better for me if it’s worse for everybody?” Wright said. “There’s a tough question. … I don’t know.”

The latest version of the GOP bill would let states escape a requirement under Obama’s law that insurers charge healthy and seriously ill customers the same rates. Overall, the legislation would cut the Medicaid program for the poor, eliminate Obama’s fines for people who don’t buy insurance and provide generally skimpier subsidies.

Denham voted to repeal the Obamacare law while Obama was president and certain to veto it, but he said last week that he’s opposed to the GOP bill unless it increases Medicaid payments to doctors.

“My district has an access issue,” Denham said. “Until we’ve got doctors getting reimbursed properly that will actually see Medicaid patients, I can’t support the bill.”

Denham, who represents a heavily Latino area of California’s Central Valley agricultural region, was targeted last year by Democrats who tried aggressively to link him to Donald Trump. He won by about 3 percentage points in a district where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by about the same amount.

Kathleen Westenberg, 67, said she was disappointed that after promising for years to repeal Obama’s health care law the GOP didn’t have a bill ready as soon as Trump took office.

“I would want him to fully repeal it. That’s why President Trump was elected,” Westenberg said as she walked into a Stanislaus County Republican Party fundraiser headlined by conservative commentator Ann Coulter in Modesto.

John Marsella, a 52-year-old stay-at-home dad, said he’s no fan of the bill Republicans are discussing. He’d prefer to see Obamacare repealed entirely, in part because he fears the law will lead to the collapse of insurance markets followed by government-funded health care.

Still, Denham’s vote on the health care bill is unlikely to sway his vote for the congressman in 2018, Marsella said, because he would not be inclined to support Denham’s Democratic opponent.

“I wish they’d just repeal Obamacare like they said they would do,” Marsella said as he ate an ice cream sundae at the bar at Cahoots Corner Cafe in Oakdale.

California Democrats, who control the Legislature and all statewide offices, have been eager to tout successes at implementing Obama’s health care law and would be highly unlikely to use the flexibility offered to states under the GOP bill.

But that doesn’t make the bill any more palatable to Mary Lou Armenta, 62, of Modesto. She worries that allowing insurance companies in some states to charge more for people with pre-existing conditions would hurt people like her 17-year-old son, who has diabetes.

“That’s not fair. That’s being prejudiced. Very prejudiced,” said Armenta, who described herself as independent and said she wishes Bernie Sanders was president. “I wonder how they would feel if they were in our position.”