HOUSTON — A day before Democratic presidential candidates converged here for a primary debate, a half-dozen doctors affiliated with the Committee to Protect Medicare and Affordable Care, a progressive group, held a rally to denounce President Trump and Republicans for what they charged were harmful proposals to strip Americans of health care coverage.
“We are here in Houston because the world is watching,” said Dr. Rob Davidson, the Michigan-based founder of the committee. “The world is watching to see whether the United States, the most powerful country in the world, is going to choose affordable, quality care or they’re going to peel back the social safety net from the elderly, the sick and the middle class.”
He said that Trump administration decisions — such as repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate — had led to 7 million people losing their health care coverage.
At the same time, some of those doctors expressed confusion and even dismay with Democratic plans. That suggested that while many in the medical community do oppose Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the ACA, they are ambivalent about the plans of his political opponents. And they hoped that, when it came time to debate on Thursday night, those candidates would offer substance instead of platitudes.
“I have to be honest, out of all the politicians I hear talk about health care,” said Davidson, “I don’t know that any of them quite have the grip on it that doctors have.”
Doctors, though, are hardly in agreement. A few, though not many, supported Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful 2017 effort to repeal the ACA, which was President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. The American Medical Association has come out against a fully federalized health care system, the proposal of Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Some doctors, though, do believe that such a fix is not just possible but necessary.
“I don’t want a single-payer for all of America,” said Dr. Lee Ben-Ami, a Houston family practice doctor who is also affiliated with a local progressive group but was speaking as a private individual. She said she was “a little worried” about the Democratic Party moving toward the Sanders plan, even as she said it was necessary to provide health care to uninsured Americans. Centrist candidates like Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado have offered such proposals, with a public option, but even though that was regarded as a radical solution during the Obama administration, it is now seen by many progressives as a conservative concession.
Such friction could spell trouble for Democrats, who in the 2018 midterm congressional elections successfully ran on protecting health care from cuts by Republicans. At the time, a tight focus on preserving the ACA allowed for victories even in unlikely districts like the 14th in Illinois, a Republican stronghold won by Lauren Underwood, a first-time candidate who was trained as a nurse. Her opponent had voted to repeal the ACA as a House member.
Even though the doctors at the Houston rally expressed dismay at the Trump administration’s approach to health care, there was no explicit endorsement of a Democratic policy. “I’m very unclear what some of the Democrats believe,” said Ben-Ami, speaking to Yahoo News before the rally. “We’ve got some people saying ‘Medicare for all,’ and what does that mean? And then I have some Democrats where I can’t pinpoint their policy.”
Davidson also lamented the lack of specifics from candidates. “I hope we get more into the weeds” during Thursday’s debate, he told Yahoo News. He hoped candidates avoid “little sound bites that play well on the news.”
Those present at the rally agreed that any Democratic president would be a better custodian of the nation’s complex medical system than Trump. Davidson noted that Republicans have spoken to the president about cutting Medicare as a “second-term project,” should he win reelection next November.
The doctors held their rally on the edge of the Texas Medical Center, the largest such facility in the world. The center is home to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — where immunologist James P. Allison was recently awarded a Nobel Prize — as well as five dozen other institutions. At the same time, 22 percent of Houston residents are uninsured, according to the Urban Institute.
Just the day before the rally on Houston’s vast medical campus, Texas was found to be “the most uninsured state in the nation,” as the Texas Tribune put it, describing just-released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The ACA allowed Texas to expand Medicaid, but it was one of 14 states — almost all of them controlled by conservative governors and legislatures — to decline the federal government’s help. That prevented 1.8 million Texans from receiving coverage, Ben-Ami said on Thursday.
Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin doctor who is running for Congress, agreed that any plan would be better than Trump’s: “Physicians could care less about the semantics of plans.”
Gandhi said he would endorse any Democrat who would push for the uninsured to have insurance. “All we want is for folks who don’t have insurance to get insurance,” he said.
Most Democrats want that too, even if they are deeply divided about how to get there.
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