Congressman Neal holds Town Hall in Chicopee

  • U.S. REP. RICHARD NEAL, D-Springfield U.S. REP. RICHARD NEAL, D-Springfield

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., speaks at a Town Hall event at Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee on March 11, 2017. Gazette Staff/Stephanie Murray

@StephMurr_Jour
Published: 3/11/2017 5:40:16 PM

CHICOPEE — From the Affordable Care Act, to the future of the Democratic Party, to President Donald Trump’s tax forms, Congressman Richard Neal talked “inside baseball” with some 150 constituents at a town hall event Saturday morning.

Neal, a Democrat who represents the state’s 1st congressional district, is one of the original authors of the health care bill enacted under President Obama. He spent the two-hour session answering constituent questions and outlined his plans to repair — not replace — the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m proud of what we did with the Affordable Care Act. It was the best we could get and we did it,” Neal said.

The event, which began at 9 a.m., was held in Berchmans Hall at Our Lady of the Elms College. Neal’s district encompasses all of Hampden and Berkshire counties and approximately the western halves of Hampshire and Franklin counties.

According to Neal, “misinformation” and “sheer demagoguery” surround the health care debate in the United States. He said only 17 percent of Americans want to completely “repeal and replace” the legislation. House Republicans released a replacement plan last Monday.

Neal called the Affordable Care Act an “incremental achievement,” and a compromise for both parties.

“The idea this was hatched, the idea this was invented, is untrue,” Neal said. “We did one thing that they’re not going to have a chance to change because it is so wildly popular with the American people: We got rid of a ban on (insurance coverage for) pre-existing conditions.”

Neal highlighted the fact that the Affordable Care Act allows folks to stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26 years old. He also touched on parts of women’s health care covered by the Affordable Care Act.

“To do those things, you’ve got to have a mandate. That was a key to the whole thing,” Neal said, calling mandates — a requirement for people to purchase health insurance — the “glue” that holds the bill together.

Neal compared the opposition to mandates to buying car insurance after the car is crashed, or buying homeowner’s insurance after the house has burned down.

“Why should people flirt with the health care system only when they need health care?” Neal asked. He added it is important to spread and manage the risk when it comes to health insurance.

As he shared anecdotes about conversations he has with fellow legislators, Neal acknowledged he was talking what he calls “inside baseball.”

“If you’re here on a Saturday morning, you like inside baseball,” Neal said.

Different views

Neal said to keep up the fight to save the Affordable Care Act relies on sharing stories of people who have been helped by the legislation. He pointed to Paulina Bergeron, who shared her story at the beginning of the event.

When her husband was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Bergeron said her family relied on the Affordable Care Act because her job does not provide insurance.

“Thank God for the Affordable Care Act,” Bergeron said.

But Richard Blodgett, of Springfield, shared a different side of the story. Blodgett took the microphone to give the crowd what he called “a dose of reality.”

“More than a third of my income goes to health insurance,” Blodgett said.

Blodgett, 63, is retired and was formerly self-employed. He said he and his wife pay $22,000 a year for health care.

“How many people am I paying for now? You talk about unfair, that is really unfair. And if you want to try to encourage entrepreneurship you have to take a tough look at this,” Blodgett said.

“Every year, every month, my largest expense by far is my health insurance. So for some of you people who either get it through the state or you get it through your employer, you don’t have a clue as to how much it really costs.”

Blodgett said he was glad to hear Neal speak, calling him a “reasonable man,” and added that there is “too much of one side in Massachusetts.”

“I’m thrilled you are here because I do think your voice needs to be heard on the individual side,” Neal said.

Reviving the party

The topic of incorporating more voices continued as Neal outlined his strategy for mobilizing the Democratic Party. Several constituents acknowledged Neal was “preaching to the choir” at the event.

“What can we do?” asked Prince Armstrong, of Holyoke. “To help you with righting the ship gone horribly wrong?”

Neal said the party cannot wait for trends to play out. Instead, the party must reach out and address concerns like job security, college tuition and wages.

“I think we need to spend more time as a party on aspiration, and talking about the problems people have every day,” Neal said.

Neal added that unions have declined in the United States, saying “there has been an advocacy group that has been sidelined.”

“It’s a big country out there,” Neal said. “Right now in America there are 8 to 9 million people working two jobs who would like to be working one. This is the economic consequence of part of the anger they feel … I think the frustration they felt played out in November.”

Trump’s tax forms

Throughout the course of President Donald Trump’s campaign, many called for him to release his tax returns. Neal, the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, is one seat away from requesting those documents. The committee chairman, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, currently holds that power.

“The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee can actually request the tax forms. The ranking member can not, the chairman can do it,” Neal said. “I’m one seat away from the chairman’s position.”

According to Neal, congressional oversight “is everything.” Neal, who voted against the Iraq War in 2002, said he does not serve under presidents, but with them.

Neal added he is opposed to term limits because they take away from the “institutional knowledge of Congress to check presidential power.”

Neal stressed that every president since Gerald Ford has released his tax forms. “Why not now?” he asked.

Stephanie Murray can be reached at stephaniemur@umass.edu




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