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Kaine finds Woodbridge allies in fight against Obamacare repeal

When U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., arrived at the Greater Prince William Community Health Center in Woodbridge on Jan. 5, he was looking for more than just a tour of the facility’s narrow hallways — he was looking for some political ammunition to bring back to Washington.

The former vice presidential nominee is gearing up for the first major fight of the new Congress. As Republicans ready their long-promised efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, he went looking for the evidence he’ll need to defend the Affordable Care Act from its many skeptics.

It didn’t take him long to find it. Within minutes of getting acquainted with the  Woodbridge facility, Kaine happened on two staffers more than willing to extol the virtues of Obamacare.

“We remember how it was before the ACA,” one staffer told the senator. “We couldn’t do cancer screenings, couldn’t find things like prostate cancer, because people didn’t have insurance.”

“I know,” Kaine told them. “I don’t want to go back, either.”

Kaine has stepped forward in recent days as one of the leading voices in the Democratic ranks urging GOP leaders to pump the brakes on their efforts to repeal the law. He joined with 12 other senators (11 Democrats and one independent) to send a letter urging top Republicans to work on changes to the ACA, rather than a full repeal that could leave 30 million people without insurance as Congress works on a replacement.

Now, he’s touring hospital and medical centers around the state to try and illustrate just how disastrous he feels a repeal of the law could be for the people who used it to gain access to health insurance.

“Rushing into this repeal, it’s jumping off a cliff without knowing where you’re going to land,” Kaine said in an interview. “We have to find an off-ramp off this interstate so it’s not this rush to a precipitous and catastrophic repeal.”

Kaine used the Prince William center as a prime example of how the repeal of the law would immediately rock the healthcare system.

Mark Meye, the center’s interim executive director, told Kaine on the tour that the ACA was able to cut the number of uninsured patients their staffers see from 62 percent to 50 percent from 2014 to 2016.

Over the same period, Meye said, the center has started seeing thousands of more patients, and he expects physicians will be able to serve as many as 19,000 people by 2018. Those gains wouldn’t have been possible without the ACA, as well as federal funding through the 2009 stimulus bill, Meye noted.

Kaine believes those numbers could ultimately prove quite persuasive, especially as Congressional Republicans confront the reality that President-elect Donald Trump will likely sign whatever repeal plan they put forward.

“Before, they knew [a vote to repeal] was a vote they could cast, with President Obama’s veto as a backstop,” Kaine said. “Now there’s no backstop, and with a repeal vote that affects tens of millions of people, it probably won’t get vetoed. Now, they really own it. Governing is different than taking a political position for your base.”

But, as of now, Republican leaders have shown every inclination to rush forward with budgetary measures to roll back sections of the law, which are impervious to a Senate filibuster. Kaine is hoping to start the persuasion process as the GOP works to “repeal the heart of the ACA,” which would require a Senate vote, since Republicans own just a 52-48 majority in that chamber.

“We just need to get to 51 votes,” Kaine said. “And then I think a way that might cut through Gordian knot of, ‘Here’s what the Dems say, and the Republicans are disorganized, here’s what they say,’ is, let’s start with the health centers. Let’s start with the hospitals, let’s start with the doctors, let’s start with the patients. You put some Dems and Republicans together with a bunch of the stakeholders, who say ‘Here’s our experiences.’”

He thinks there could plenty of moderate Republicans willing to debate new legislation to fix the ACA in his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and though he acknowledges it could be a tough pill to swallow for some GOP senators who have promised a repeal of the law for years, he’s still optimistic that Congress can ultimately find a compromise.

“We have to acknowledge that’s a political reality,” Kaine said. “But if they want to call the next version of it replacement, and I want to call it reform, I don’t mind. We’ll call it whatever you want.”

Kaine has a similar message for Trump and his staff, including senior advisor Kellyanne Conway, who recently promised that no one would lose insurance under any repeal of the ACA. Kaine is considerably skeptical of that pledge based on current GOP efforts, but he does think he can turn those words back on the new White House to establish some common ground.

“(Trump) will say Obamacare is a disaster and he wants to make it better and cheaper,” Kaine said. “Great, I want to make it better and cheaper. Let’s sit down and do that.”

The senator also thinks he can make headway with any Republican plotting a “repeal and delay” strategy, a popular idea among some in the GOP hoping to delay a full repeal of the law for anywhere from two to four years as Congress hashes out a replacement plan. Kaine warns that sort of legislation could cause huge uncertainty and even crash the insurance markets, and he hopes to use that threat to pressure any Republicans hoping for a delay into a fix instead.

“The argument we’d make is, ‘If you’re putting the effective date out anyway, that tells us you’re not rushing and if you’re not rushing, why not use that time to sit down and come up with what that next chapter will be?’” Kaine said.

But if Republicans resist all these various overtures and decide to repeal the law anyway, Kaine said Democrats won’t have much sympathy for them.

“If you go the repeal route, and the market starts to go crazy and it’s chaotic, you can’t come to us and say, ‘Will you help bail us out?’” Kaine said. “We don’t want to bail you out of the chaos that you could’ve avoided, that we told you not to create. We want to sit down with you right now. That’s the goal right now.”