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California Legislature

On Kevin McCarthy's home turf, Democratic legislators warn against Obamacare repeal

Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Democratic legislators took their pro-Obamacare message on the road Thursday, convening a hearing in Bakersfield to examine the repercussions of repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The state Senate health committee pointedly held its hearing in the Central Valley — far afield form the state Capitol and the home districts of most members in attendance, but the home turf of key Republican members of California's congressional delegation including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy.

Lawmakers and witnesses took pains to emphasize the looming effects of repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the region.

"There are few regions in the country that have had more gaps in its healthcare system than [Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties] in the years before implementation of the Affordable Care Act," said Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), who chairs the health committee.

The area is particularly reliant on Medi-Cal, the subsidized healthcare program for the poor that relies on both state and federal dollars. In Tulare County, 55% of the population is enrolled in Medi-Cal, according to the California Budget and Policy Center ; in Kern, home to Bakersfield, 45% of the population uses the program.

The UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates that more than 95,000 people in Kern County who were eligible for Medi-Cal under Obamacare would lose coverage in case of repeal, as well as nearly 55,000 people in Tulare County.

Health Access California, an advocacy group using the UC Berkeley data, estimated that nearly 70,000 people in McCarthy's district alone would lose access to Medi-Cal.

McCarthy's Bakersfield-based district has been a flashpoint in the debate over healthcare overhaul in recent days. In letters to the Republican leader, Gov. Jerry Brown , Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and state Sens. Kevin de Leon and Hernandez all emphasized the harmful impact to Kern and Tulare counties, which McCarthy represents, should Obamacare be repealed.

McCarthy was slammed in a Sacramento Bee editorial for pursuing repeal at the detriment of his own constituents. The congressman responded by saying the Medi-Cal coverage numbers belie the insufficient healthcare the program provides. He also faulted critics for not anticipating a replacement plan that Republicans have promised to offer.

Attendees at Thursday's hearing stopped short of explicit jabs at McCarthy, but the Central Valley-focused theme of the day was unmistakable.

Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez warned that rolling back Medi-Cal coverage would drive more patients to emergency rooms, straining the local public hospital, Kern Medical Center.

"This would have a devastating impact on Kern Medical's bottom line," she said.

Tony Iton, senior vice president of healthy communities at the California Endowment, presented a study showing troubling high mortality rates among middle-aged working-class white men in the Central Valley, largely due to chronic stress that is pointing people to suicide or substance abuse.

"These causes of death scream out for greater investments" in mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment, Iton said, noting such services are expanded by the Affordable Care Act.

"It is the worst possible moment to be withdrawing access to healthcare in the Central Valley," Iton said.

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