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Story & Photos: Covington Takes Center Stage in Health Care Debate with Sanders Visit

The national debate over the future of health care in the United States landed in Covington on Sunday afternoon, first with a symbolic protest across the Roebling Suspension Bridge that links to the city to Cincinnati, and then with a fiery speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who arrived at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center where roughly 2,000 people cheered on his cries to preserve and improve the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

Evidence of success of President Barack Obama's signature legislation was displayed by Covington's interim city manager, Loren Wolff, who shared the story of her son William, who survived complications at birth and later, a kidney transplant.

"It was a difficult and scary time for our family but thankfully, despite the challenges we faced as a family, (with Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA) William received the care he needs and we would not lose our private insurance," said Wolff, who was joined on stage by a 5-year old William.

Wolff said that through the law practice she shares with her husband, Ben, where the focus is bankruptcy cases, that the difficulty of overcoming mounting health-related expenses was familiar to her. 

With the expansion of Medicaid coverage and other ACA provisions in many states, including Kentucky, that worry has been lessened, she said.

"By the time William received a kidney transplant at 18 months, he had been hospitalized ten times and there were days we didn't know he would survive, but we were always able to focus on his health and the needs of our family without worrying about medical bills," Wolff said. "When William received his kidney transplant he began to grow and thrive." Previously, William was unable to walk and eat on his own. Therapy in both areas allowed him to learn. "Because he received the medical treatments he needed, he is a happy, healthy, thriving 5-year old who will start kindergarten this fall."

She added that because of the ACA, William won't be denied private health insurance in the future because of his pre-existing condition.

Mayor Joe Meyer extended the narrative to all of Covington's residents. "As mayor of this city, I've heard (citizens') struggles, their hopes, their successes, their worries, and their frustrations," Meyer said at the podium before the thousands waiting to see Sen. Sanders. "Access to affordable, quality health care is near the top of their list."

Sanders said that he chose Kentucky as part of his national tour promoting the preservation and improvement of the ACA because of its success with the state's version of the federal law under former Governor Steve Beshear. Current Governor Matt Bevin ended Kentucky's kynect program, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, has waged a years-long war on the ACA.

McConnell wrote the Republican bill that would repeal the ACA and that is currently stuck in the Senate. Each time McConnell was mentioned on Sunday, his name was met with widespread booing. 

Meyer noted that Kentucky's uninsured rate dropped from more than 20 percent before the ACA and kynect to below 7 percent after. "The economic impact of the ACA is incredible," Meyer continued. "Thousands of new jobs for our economy and billions more for Kentucky's hospitals and health care providers, and there's less reliance on the emergency room for primary care.

"We can't afford to betray those people. We can't afford to undermine the state's economy and rip that health coverage back away from them."

The mayor also noted the region's battle with heroin addiction and the rising number of overdoses in Covington and nearby cities. "Covington's first responders found 636 overdoses in 2016," he said. Overdoses reported at Northern Kentucky emergency rooms have climbed from 252 in 2011 to 1,584 in 2016, he said. 

"The ACA and Medicaid expansion aren't enough to solve this crisis but they include strong provisions that help us," Meyer said. "We cannot go backward. We cannot take treatment away from people who desperately need it."

"Covington is not pretentious. We're full of people who believe if you get up every day and contribute sweat and effort, your family will be just a little better off at the end of that day," Meyer continued. "You could say that we epitomize America and the pursuit of the American dream and good health is imperative for the success of our people."

When Sanders took to the podium, his remarks were the familiar ones that have dominated the Democrats' narrative in the national health care debate: health care is a right, not a privilege. And he laid hard into McConnell's bill.

"I want to talk about this so-called Republican health care bill," Sanders said, the crowd booing loudly. "(It) is the worst and most dangerous piece of legislation ever proposed in the modern history of our country and what bothers me a lot and the reason I'm here and the reason that we were in Morgantown, West Virginia earlier today is that some 50 percent of the American people don't know what's in this disastrous bill.

"That the leader of the U.S. Senate, Senator McConnell of this state," he said, the boos flying again, "could be working so hard to destroy the Affordable Care Act as you have just heard, which has benefited this state more than any other state in America, I don't get it. That, I do not understand, and let me be as clear as I can be. This so-called health care bill passed by the House several months ago and strongly supported by President (Donald) Trump is the most anti-working class legislation that I have ever seen and the Senate bill, in many respects, is even worse."

Sanders criticized the President for campaigning in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, states that he easily won last November, arguing that he would right for the working class. "Unfortunately," Sanders said, "candidate Trump was not telling the truth and what I say to the President is, you are not standing up for the working class of Kentucky or America when you throw 22 million people off the health insurance they have."


Prior to the Sanders event, roughly 270 people linked hands across the Roebling Suspension Bridge, with groups meeting on the Covington and Cincinnati sides and then meeting in the middle to show their solidarity against the Republican bill.

“It is important for me to be here today because I have spent most of my life in healthcare," said Marilyn Schleyer, an Associate member of the Sisters of Divine Providence. "I know that what is being proposed is going to put our children and grandchildren in harm’s way.”

Schleyer also spoke about what she expects would be the specific impact on Kentucky.

“Kentucky has some of the highest mortality rates in the country related to diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease. Kentucky has an extraordinarily viable Medicaid expansion program and to try to repeal any of that is unconscionable.”

Written by Michael A. Monks (who watched the speeches via Facebook)
Photos by Brian Frey, RCN contributor
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