Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) was drowned out by constituents’ booing at a town hall in Lewiston, Idaho on Friday after saying that lacking access to health care never caused anyone to die.
Labrador made the statement in response to a question from a woman in the audience, who said that taking health care away from people on Medicaid was tantamount to asking them to die.
“That line is so indefensible,” Labrador said. “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”
Around 45,000 deaths annually are linked to a lack of health insurance, according to a 2009 study from Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance. According to another study from the Institute of Medicine, uninsured people are more likely to die than insured people when diagnosed with a wide swath of medical conditions, including cancer, heart failure, strokes, and even after severe car accidents.
Labrador’s response drew immediate ire from the crowd, outrage that has only grown on social media. His Facebook page soon was littered with comments from people criticizing his answer and sharing personal stories about loved ones and friends that had died as a result of not having access to health care.
On Saturday, Labrador posted a statement on the exchange, saying that his response “wasn’t very elegant” and criticizing the media coverage.
“In the five-second clip that the media is focusing on, I was trying to explain that all hospitals are required by law to treat patients in need of emergency care regardless of their ability to pay and that the Republican plan does not change that,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t help that the media is only highlighting a five-second video, instead of the entire exchange.”
Labrador’s longer explanation, however, also doesn’t hold up.
The link between having access to health care and higher rates of mortality is complicated and not fully understood, because overall health is the result of a series of factors that build up over years. But merely having access to an emergency room is not the same as having regular access to health care, and research on higher mortality rates among the uninsured shows that emergency care alone is insufficient to prevent unnecessary deaths.
“Despite the availability of some safety net services, there is a chasm between the health care needs of people without health insurance and access to effective health care services. This gap results in needless illness, suffering, and even death,” the 2009 IOM study concludes.
According to the study, one reason these preventable deaths occur is because when people have only intermittent access to medical care, they find out about serious conditions at later stages when there are fewer treatments available — think cancer, for example, and the difference that an early diagnosis can make in survival outcomes.
It’s not clear precisely what effect the GOP bill would have on overall rates of coverage, because the bill was rushed through the house without a CBO score, which would estimate how much it would cost the government, what effect it would have on the cost of health care, and its effect on overall insurance levels.
A CBO score of an earlier version, however, estimated that the bill would cause 24 million fewer people to be insured by 2026, largely as a result of the bill rolling back Medicaid and rising health care costs for the elderly and sick, who would drop out of the pool of the insured.
Since that first CBO score was handed down, provisions have been added to the bill to allow states to roll back Obamacare’s essential health benefits provision (which mandates that insurance cover basic medical services like hospitalizations and prescriptions) and protections against discrimination of people with preexisting conditions.
Labrador is a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which pushed for the repeal of the preexisting conditions protections and the essential health benefits.
He was also one the first lawmakers to hold town halls after voting for the Republican House bill to replace Obamacare. The vote on the unpopular bill was held immediately before a congressional recess, when lawmakers traditionally go to their home districts to meet with constituents.
Many Republican lawmakers, however, in response to a groundswell of civic participation and anger from constituents, are holding town halls by telephone and on Facebook live instead of meeting with constituents in person. The lawmakers say this enables them to reach more constituents, but activists note that it also allows them to screen calls, maintain control of the situation, and avoid embarrassing viral moments like the one building off Labrador’s response.
Many lawmakers from swing districts — such as districts that voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton but are represented by Republicans in congress — aren’t holding town halls at all this recess.