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Town hall meeting at Pittsburgh's Station Square targets new health care law

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 11:46 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, President of The Heritage Foundation, talks to Tribune-Review reporters on Aug. 28, 2013, at the Trib offices on the North Shore.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Former Sen. Jim DeMint speaks at The Heritage Foundation's Defund Obamacare meeting at the Sheraton, Station Square on Aug. 28, 2013.

The head of a conservative think tank said Wednesday that withholding funding for President Obama's health care overhaul could halt some government services, but it's worth the political risk.

“The reason we're not wincing on that is because the alternative is really, really serious,” former South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, president of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said during a meeting with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

On Wednesday night, DeMint headlined a lively town hall meeting in Station Square to pan the Affordable Care Act, which has become known as Obamacare — the eighth such stop in a national tour. It drew about 700 people.

The event also attracted about a dozen supporters of Obama's health care law. One man dropped a paper reading, “Vote Yes Obamacare,” at the crowded conference room's entrance and walked away briskly, while event organizers asked the rest to leave after they stood holding signs supporting Obama's plan.

“I think Obamacare is a very good thing,” said Jeff Harris of Squirrel Hill, who dropped the paper. “It will give everyone the opportunity to get insurance and protect people from what insurance companies can do,” such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

DeMint thinks it will drive up health care costs and insurance premiums.

He said the national tour is the largest effort of its kind by Heritage. Its political arm, Heritage Action for America, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads targeting several Republican congressmen who have not gotten on board with plans to defund the health care law — including Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who called defunding the plan the “dumbest idea I've ever heard.”

The effort is being tied to a government funding bill that expires Sept. 30. Congress needs to pass legislation, including money for the law, or risk letting parts of the federal government shut down.

“I don't care if the government shuts down. It's no good anyway. Obamacare has to go,” said Michele Zolnier, who drove from Hermitage in Mercer County, to attend the town hall meeting.

DeMint wants Congress to OK funding for everything but the law, preventing major provisions from taking effect. People not covered by an employer-sponsored health care plan, Medicare, Medicaid or some other public program can start enrolling in plans offered through a new state insurance exchange on Oct. 1. The subsidized plans will take effect Jan. 1.

Republican detractors have said the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House won't support withholding money for the law in a government funding bill, and the GOP could take blame for any government shutdown. The best way to get rid of the overhaul, they contend, is to win back the White House and Senate and repeal the law.

“I think they have to play hardball now. If Republicans don't fight for this, what will they fight for?” asked Paul Dixon, 60, of Bethel Park.

A survey released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation shows just 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the law, yet 57 percent oppose cutting off funding.

“The thought that we could let (Obamacare) be totally implemented and it's going to show what a mess it is, and that will help Republicans win the next election, is an almost inexcusable strategy. We know once people get moved to this, there's not going to be a place for them to come back,” DeMint said.

The Heritage Foundation estimates the federal government will spend $48 billion subsidizing plans in 2014. In Pennsylvania, an estimated 1.2 million people are uninsured, and more than 90 percent are expected to qualify for subsidies, according to Health and Human Services data.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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