After tumultuous week for health care policy, south St. Pete residents have questions

With Obamacare still somewhat in flux, many want to know how changes will affect them.

click to enlarge Gershom Faulkner, who is outreach director to U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), talks to constituents about the importance of their voice in federal policymaking. - Terrence Smith
Terrence Smith
Gershom Faulkner, who is outreach director to U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), talks to constituents about the importance of their voice in federal policymaking.

After a week where healthcare policy dotted headlines, Childs Park YMCA was packed Tuesday evening for a thorough discussion on the controversial issue.

In a neighborhood that statistics suggest has the highest rates of obesity and asthma in the city, locals gathered for an in-depth look at the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and the debate that surrounds it, along with the opportunity for community members to share their own stories.

Prior to the town hall was a community resource fair that brought out local vendors and offered free health screenings for a variety of conditions. The event was organized by the Community Health Coalition of St. Pete, which describes itself as “an alliance of residents and organizers working to highlight local health issues and concerns through outreach,” Florida Voices for Health, Florida SEIU, Tampa Bay Healthcare Collaborative and Inflo Communications, among other entities.

As the town hall event that followed began, Florida Voices for Health Executive Director Scott Darius took the floor and offered an overview of the healthcare debate, from the ACA's inception to the hour he spoke, with details of tactics Republicans have used to attack it, such as the elimination of cost-sharing reductions to state-level efforts at cutting Medicaid (or block its expansion by eschewing readily available federal money) — and, of course, Congressional Republicans' recent (failed) efforts to repeal the ACA via the Better Care Reconciliation Act and other measures.

The Republicans' most recent efforts to repeal Obamacare may have failed, he said, but it would be naive for ACA backers to think they won't be back.

“We'd all be silly to assume that just beating the Better Care Reconciliation Act was the end of the fight and that's it,” said Darius. “There's still a lot of problems with healthcare, there's still a lot of specific issues with the Affordable Care Act, but those solutions are out there. What we have to be careful of is being on guard against the threats to the progress we've already made.”

While Darius said healthcare advocates have a lot more work to do, he did note a positive that's come from the debate: growing public support for a universal healthcare, or single payer.

After Darius' update, attendees were split into groups and given the task of either telling the stories of their experiences with the healthcare industry or short pitches about how to improve care. The stories shared brought a mix of tragedy and resolve to push good healthcare policy forward.

To help stress the role constituent pressure can have on the lawmakers who create and vote on federal healthcare policies, Gershom Faulkner, who is outreach director to U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), detailed the impact local activism can have on policymakers in Washington.

Often, he said, elected officials will call staff members to get a read on how the public is reacting to certain bills and issues.

"Sometimes there are issues on the Hill or even in Tallahassee or locally that are closely divided, so the elected official may not know exactly where he's going to vote, where your voice is extremely important,” he said.

Faulkner was noncommittal on questions regarding Crist's support for single payer or more specific healthcare requests but assured attendees that he would relay their questions and concerns to Crist.

The event's organizers say they plan to hold similar events throughout the region with some regularity as the healthcare policy debate wears on.

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