A town hall with Sen. Dean Heller turned electric Monday when a chronically ill Reno woman confronted him, asking if he would vote to mess with her health care and refusing to back down.
Vivian Leal, a 51-year-old mother with multiple sclerosis, wanted to know whether the Nevada Republican would support a plan that would place her in a high-risk insurance pool because of her condition. High-risk pools segregate customers with pre-existing conditions into plans with higher premiums, while healthy people pay less.
Several Republican lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have expressed support for such plans.
“It’s harder to make laws about people who they’re going to affect when you have to face the people they might hurt,” Leal says.
In a video circulating on Twitter, Heller began by offering that he was sorry to hear Leal’s story.
Leal continued to press the senator as he attempted to steer the conversation to a discussion of why he rejected the Republican health care plan.
The exchange quickly became heated.
Soon, the crowd was chanting, “Yes or no,” and Heller was forced to reply:
“I will support high-risk pools because there are some people who want them,” Heller finally admitted to the crowd.
For Leal, portioning off health care is both a moral and economic concern.
“Who are we when we just huddle all our sick into one pool and make them pay higher penalties for being sick beyond their illness?” Leal wants to know.
Some states allowed residents to buy into high-risk insurance pools prior to the Affordable Care Act, which often featured far higher costs of care for sick customers. According to an NPR report, plans bought through Minnesota’s pool, for example, cost about 25% more than regular plans, with some participants paying up to $18,000 per year in premiums.
“Letting us buy into a high-risk pool is access, but it’s not really accessible coverage or affordable coverage at all. It might as well be no coverage for most people,” Leal explains. Both she and her husband currently receive coverage through a plan on Nevada’s ACA exchange, which Leal credits for giving her the “freedom from the fear of illness and bankruptcy.”
Leal isn’t the only American making it harder for her elected representative to get away with a “fuzzy answer” these days.
Last week, Oklahomans needling Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R) over his responsibility to serve their interests prompted the congressman to insist the notion that citizens pay his salary is “bull crap,” touching off a mini-firestorm in the media.
Also on Monday, constituents of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) demanded to know whether he would apply the same zeal for investigating Russian election interference as he did for the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Time will tell how Heller’s encounter with his constituents affects his votes on issues like health care.
In the meantime, as her senator prepares to travel back to Washington, Leal’s message is clear:
“We see you.”
Correction — 4/19/17: An earlier version of this article stated that Leal receives health coverage through her husband’s job. Both she and her husband are, in fact, covered by a plan on the Nevada ACA exchange.