Republican congressman sneaks away from constituents demanding health care answers

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) escaped out the back door of his own event before it was over to avoid the angry crowd.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) tweeted Friday that he was excited to return home to Colorado this weekend, but things didn’t go very well when he got there.

On Saturday, his open meeting to chat with constituents at the Aurora Central Library was overwhelmed by voters particularly concerned about the fate of their health care if the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) is repealed — a plan Coffman supports — without a replacement put in place. Rather than meet with most of them or even address them, he left the event via a back door and escaped in a waiting vehicle.

Among those who never got the chance to speak with Coffman was Berthie Ruoff. She told 9news, “I am potentially going to lose my health insurance. I’ve had a preexisting condition. I’ve had breast cancer. What’s going to happen to me? My spouse who had health insurance passed away. What do I do? You know, what am I supposed to do?” One of the hallmarks of the ACA was its provision that insurance carriers could no longer deny coverage to applicants because of pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, and cancer — as many did prior to the law’s passage.

It’s not clear that Coffman would have had a satisfying answer for her. This week, he co-authored an op-ed in The Denver Post with his fellow Republican congressmen from Colorado defending their support for repealing the ACA. Addressing the argument that people could lose their coverage and not find new plans because of pre-existing conditions, the lawmakers promised a Republican plan that “envisions” expanding protections that existed before the ACA, such as privacy protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But such protections only help those who change but maintain insurance coverage, not those who lose it and have to start a new plan, meaning they would do nothing to help Ruoff or others like her if their coverage should end because of the law’s repeal.

Coffman’s event, his first since June, was supposed to run from 2 to 3:30 and allow for one-on-one conversations with constituents. Because of the turnout, he met with them four at a time, ultimately speaking with only about 70 people and leaving far more waiting. He also left before the event was even supposed to end, sneaking out around 3:24.

According to his chief of staff, Ben Stein, the event was not intended to be a town hall. “Unfortunately, we only reserved the room at the Aurora Central Library for 90 minutes, which is usually plenty of time to see everyone,” he said in a statement. “For those who were unable to see the Congressman today we apologize. These constituents are invited to attend upcoming meeting opportunities and we will block more time so that he can hear from more of his constituents.”

Coffman has issued no personal statement addressing his early departure or the health care concerns so many of his constituents were there to discuss with him. Despite vague assurances from many Republican members of Congress, no ACA replacement plans have yet been shared with the public even though repeal votes are already underway.

UPDATE: One of the many people in attendance was Eduard Skhisov, who captured several videos of the event and shared details about his experience with ThinkProgress. One video shows Coffman’s staffer shows Coffman’s staffer promising the crowd that everyone who had already showed up would be seen, which clearly did not happen. They were also told they would not be allowed to record their conversations with the congressman.

Despite the statement from Coffman’s office that he spoke with 70 people, Skhisov insists there’s no way that’s possible. “I was #41 on the list, and I was not even close to getting in,” he told ThinkProgress in an email. “Me and my wife estimate that he saw maybe 17–20 people.”

According to Skhisov, around 3:24, one of the constituents waiting by the door shouted that the next time the door opened, they were all planning to enter to confront Coffman. Assuming that warning was heard inside the room, he suspects that may have been what prompted Coffman to make his escape out the back.

Skhisov also believes that the room in which Coffman was holding the meetings was easily large enough to handle the capacity of people that instead spent the event standing in the hallway. They demanded a townhall format, but the congressman’s staff did not oblige.

UPDATE: Facebook user Missy Berglun went live to show the waiting crowd singing patriotic songs while they waited — moments before Coffman made his elusive exit:

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