RINGWOOD – They say the echoes sustain longer in the bear country canyons here than elsewhere in New Jersey, and in this lone diner dotting a far northern roadway, the White Room guitar squeals of Eric Clapton reverberated like the wailing of some distant lifelong-recurring soundtrack as the door swung and U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) entered.
In the big scheme, it was just hours really since the Republicans in the House of Representatives passed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last Thursday over Gottheimer’s objections, and InsiderNJ reminded the Congressman – sworn into office in January for the first time since toppling movement conservative Scott Garrett in 2016 – that he landed in the middle of it, reaching for a battlezone metaphor.
Vietnam came to mind, and the word Hanoi tipped the tongue when Gottheimer interjected, his face crinkling into a smile of recognition. “It’s like landing on Normandy Beach, in political terms,” he said, cutting to the quick, between the election of President Donald J. Trump and a GOP reanimated nationally and the healthcare debate and him trying to land squarely in the midst of it in a district that belonged to Republicans going back to 1933 before he turned it blue.
At the moment, Gottheimer over iced coffee strenuously, and in full-bore detail-oriented mode, argued why he believes the Republicans made a terrible mistake by driving this version of repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and why he feels stronger heading toward 2018.
“I have several huge issues with it,” the 42-year old congressman, father of two, said. “The first is they didn’t even attempt to sit down and bring Democrats in, and there are plenty of us, but there was not even an attempt to do that. No attempt. So first they start crafting this – the first version – and they gave us two days to read it, and they didn’t accept any of our amendments – unlike the CR, where we did try to work together, which was a good model.
“I worry about New Jersey,” Gottheimer added, referring to the impact of the Republicans’ efforts. “The bill is terrible for us in New Jersey and in the district.”
The state stands to lose significant Medicaid matching resources.
“Medicaid dollars will go way down and the burden on us will go way up – we don’t exactly have change lying around,” said the congressman, who last year drove a successful argument against Garrett when he made the case that the incumbent’s lack of interest in pursuing government grants – and ultimately his antipathy toward government generally – put greater burdens on local municipalities in the district struggling to find means of payment for necessities like fire trucks.
“What’s interesting is most of the mayors in my district didn’t know these [federal] grants were available,” he said. “The congressional office should be helping to identify where to apply for grants. I hired a director of return on investments, and all his job is is to find where these grants are and then to call [local mayors and municipalities].”
Just as what he cited in his campaign as Garrett’s neglect had a negative impact district-wide, this healthcare bill in a very specific way will simply place greater cost burdens on his residents, Gottheimer argued.
“This bill creates $4000 in new tax tax pressure,” he said, pointing to relaxed measures that allow health insurance companies and states to opt out. “What the MacArthur amendment did was it put an extra $8 billion into this [pre-existing conditions] pool, which was a sop to the Freedom Caucus – that’s why the middle is mad at him. Now MacArthur can do what he wants, I’m not judging him, but I don’t think it’s good for us in the district, in my opinion. The problem with this pool is the fund is massively underfunded, and people think they’re going to lose coverage. It completely undermines a great accomplishment of the ACA. It’s bad policy. Hackensack Hospital – they hate it. The doctors hate it. The patients hate it.”
Gottheimer conceded necessary reforms – getting rid of the Cadillac tax and medical device tax as part of a revisiting of the ACA.
But “They’re taking a meat cleaver to it and gutting it versus actually repairing it and there’s a huge difference,” he said. “For us in New Jersey, if we go with their plan, it’s a $4000 tax increase for people in my district. Period. The end. if my opponent wants to advocate for a tax increase, good luck. Bring it. I’m for lower taxes. The next phase of the argument – it blows seniors off $2000 a year by getting rid of the ACA donut hole. If I were that person [running against me] I would never make this an issue, because we see how unpopular it is. If you want to tell a senior that the donut hole is blown back open, go ahead. Game. Set. Match. The senate has already signaled they don’t like this bill. Three out of five of New Jersey’s Republican Congressmen voted against this. That’s a good stat too.”