After months of facing pressure from constituents to host a town hall-style meeting, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey gave some ground and decided to compromise—hosting an invitation-only town hall from the comforts of ABC27 News studios in Harrisburg. Toomey opened the town hall by saying that he was looking forward to a “constructive dialogue” as protesters concurrently demonstrated outside the ABC27 studios to voice their opposition to Medicaid cuts in the Senate’s legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Questions focused on the current health care debate in the U.S., as Toomey was one of 13 Republican senators involved in writing the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, the GOP bill which proposes the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
Toomey was quick to voice his opposition to Obamacare, pointing to costly premiums, copays and deductibles as reasons to get behind the Republican effort.
“Fundamentally, I think Obamacare has failed us. Obamacare has driven up the cost of health care, premiums in Pennsylvania are up 120 percent in just the past few years, deductibles are higher, copays are higher,” Toomey said. “I want to get away from the government controlling health care and move in the direction of allowing individuals to make the decisions about their own health care.”
Questioned about cuts to Medicaid, Toomey said he believes the program is unsustainable, and only salvageable by shifting spending more toward states.
“This program was already unsustainable, Obamacare made it more unsustainable,” he said.
Toomey said the rollbacks in the growth of federal Medicaid spending will help to balance the spending dynamic between the federal government and state governments, and keep the program sustainable.
With Toomey set on undermining the state of Obamacare provisions, in was only a matter of time until a constituent brought up the analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan force tasked with grading the GOP’s health care bill and predicting the effects that the bill will have.
Asked about the CBO analysis that estimates 22 million Americans losing insurance coverage, a 26 percent drop in Medicaid spending and the repeal of a 3.8 percent net investment income tax that would funnel $274 billion to the top 2 percent—Toomey took aim at the CBO.
Besides dodging the $274 billion question, Toomey said that the CBO analysis is “based on wildly speculative assumptions” and pointed to Clinton ties in the CBO as reasons not to believe the conclusions drawn by the nonpartisan office. Toomey said he does not believe the estimations will turn out to be accurate.
“I don’t believe they’re going to come to pass,” he said.
With seven years to craft a repeal bill for Obamacare, Republicans have caught a lot of criticism for being unprepared and without a bill at the time of Trump’s election victory. Toomey said that’s because both he and his colleagues were caught off guard by Trump’s November win.
“I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win, I think most of my colleagues didn’t. We didn’t expect to be in this situation, and given how difficult it is to get to a consensus, it was hard to force that, until there was a need to,” he said.
Toomey also answered questions about infrastructure, defense spending, and medical marijuana. The Pennsylvania junior senator said he is supportive of marijuana when used for medicinal purposes, but said he does not support legalizing it for recreational use.
“My view is, if there are chemical compounds in marijuana that are medically useful and helpful to people, then, by all means, they should be available to people. We extract compounds from all kinds of substances, and I don’t understand why we wouldn’t allow beneficial treatments derived from marijuana,” he said.
Asked about campaign finance reform and his coziness with large donors, Toomey said he views any drastic measures to the current campaign finance system as a detriment to political challengers.
“I think, if we restricted the opportunity for people to make campaign contributions, to spend campaign money as they see fit, we would have less vibrant elections, we would have more incumbents staying in office even longer,” Toomey said.
The town hall marked a rare public appearance for Toomey who has bucked the trend of his GOP counterparts and largely sidestepped public, face-to-face interactions with constituents.
Many of his Washington colleagues have attempted to fill the void and use Toomey’s absence to their political advantage, with Sen. Bob Casey and Reps. Matt Cartwright and Charlie Dent holding such meetings with their constituents.