Alice Allen couldn’t suppress the smile that crept onto her face Tuesday as Capitol Hill Police officers led her out of a Senate office building, her hands cuffed behind her back.
The great-grandmother and home health aide from St. Louis had just been arrested for unlawful protest in a congressional building.
It was her first act of civil disobedience, Allen said. But she thought the drastic step was necessary in the fight to save the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m a little nervous about it, but it’s all for a great cause,” Allen said, “so it’s an honor and a blessing to be here, and to get arrested.”
Allen, a 61-year-old service union member, was in Washington as part of a group of about 100 health care workers, faith leaders and people with pre-existing conditions from 20 states who’d come to Capitol Hill on Tuesday. They came with the organization Save My Care to register dissent to Republicans’ plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Republicans have been promising for years to repeal the 7-year-old law. Congress took the first procedural steps last month but are is difficulty figuring out how to replace it.
The protesters targeted only GOP senators, but it’s likely they won’t move many Republicans. After peacefully visiting lawmakers’ offices, 47 people from the group marched through the lobby of the Hart Senate Office Building, chanting and singing.
They sat down in front of the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a panel that will play a key role in repealing or replacing Obamacare. They kept singing and chanting. And they refused to leave.
Hatch later said he was unaware that anyone had been arrested outside his office.
“They’d have to be pretty wild to get arrested, seems to me,” he said. “I stop and talk to everybody if I can, but you don’t want to spend time with people who are just there to cause trouble.”
Capitol Police warned the protesters that they were demonstrating in an unlawful manner in an unauthorized area. Then they cuffed the protesters one by one, and escorted them from the building. No one resisted.
Earlier in the day, Allen had sought out her own senator, Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who chairs a subcommittee responsible for funding health care. She and others from Save My Care spoke with an aide in Blunt’s office, who took a package of letters from others in the state who opposed the repeal of Obamacare.
Allen asked the aide whether Blunt has insurance through his employer, Congress. The aide didn’t answer.
“Lead by example. Lead by example,” the others chanted.
Pastor Carl White, 67, a heart transplant candidate from Chicago, rolled his wheelchair to the front of the group to say a prayer.
“We pray, Father God, that you will touch the hearts of these senators, congressmen, anyone involved who makes these decisions,” White said, as those around him bowed their heads.
“Amen,” the group murmured. And they filed out.
Blunt, who was not in his office at the time, said he was glad to have people peacefully protest.
“That’s absolutely their right,” he said.
He said he wasn’t aware of any arrests.
“Well, that really is up to the law enforcement officials to decide, not up to us to decide,” he said.
Blunt’s office confirmed that he and his son get insurance through the Affordable Care Act, as do all his staffers. The government, as their employer, offers to offset the cost of their premiums. The senator contributes the amount of the federal contribution to charity.
Allen had traveled from Missouri to Washington once before to stress the importance of the Affordable Care Act to Blunt and Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. That was a few months ago, before the election. She met with staff members in the senators’ offices and told them her concerns.
Now, though, things are different, Allen said.
“Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes. The cause is much greater now,” Allen said.
Allen said she was doing it for her brother, who has cancer, which would qualify as a pre-existing condition. She’s doing it for her patients, who she fears could lose the services of home health aides like her.
Her family was worried about her, Allen said, but they were proud:
“My 18-year-old granddaughter said to me, ‘Make it back home.’ That’s all she said.”
Allen’s friend from St. Louis, Elinor Simmons, 67, said her message for Blunt was simple: “Help keep the affordable Care Act in existence. Remember that we are human beings, and we deserve health care. Without it, a lot of us would die. And I am one of them.”
Simmons was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2013. Before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, Simmons said, she’d been uninsured.
She’s now in remission, but she’s worried that she will lose her coverage if Republicans repeal Obamacare, since her cancer would count as a pre-existing condition.
“I have to see a doctor every six months,” she said. “If I don’t continue getting that care, I could have a relapse and I would die.”
Scott Fines, a 31-year-old software engineer from Columbia, Missouri, said he’d come to Washington after failing to get responses to letters and calls to Blunt’s office.
His 2-year-old son was born with a congenital birth defect that caused his mouth not to be connected to his stomach.
“Without considerable surgical intervention he would have starved to death,” Fines said. “He was able to do so because he had insurance. But he is a walking pre-existing condition.”
Medical expenses for Fines’ son, Ryan, totaled $750,000 in the first five months of his life alone, Fines said. The toddler is doing well now, but he needs follow-up treatments, including annual trips to Boston to see specialists.
“If my son doesn’t get follow-up, we could miss cancer and then he could die,” Fines said. “Can you give up? As long as there’s breath in my body, I’m going to fight.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.