PALM HARBOR — Rep. Gus Bilirakis issued the call to residents of his conservative district on Facebook: Come share your thoughts on the future of health care.
More than 200 people took the Republican congressman up on it, packing a Palm Harbor community center on Saturday morning so tightly that late-comers had to park down the street.
The twist: Despite the demographics of the district, which includes all of Pasco and parts of Pinellas and Hills- borough counties, nearly all the guests came to support the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health law now on the chopping block.
There was John Ford, 66, who was once denied coverage for his hip because he had previously had the joint replaced. And Christine Mendonca, 34, who worried that without Obamacare, she could no longer afford to get pregnant.
Evan Thornton, 21, fought back tears describing the congenital heart condition that could cut his life short. The Affordable Care Act allowed him to have coverage under his parents' plan into his 20s, he said.
"I'm an independent who voted for you," he told Bilirakis. "Please don't take my life away. Please don't let me die."
Only a handful supported efforts by congressional Republicans to repeal and replace the health law — and one was a Bilirakis employee, case work director Kristen Sellas.
"We have deductibles that I never had before," Sellas said. After Congress began requiring members and their employees to buy Affordable Care Act plans, co-pays for surgeries that were once $350 jumped to $3,000, she said.
Bilirakis, a six-term representative who was recently named to a key health subcommittee, listened more than he spoke.
"I wouldn't be a good representative if I didn't hear you out," he said.
But on some points, he said, he had already made up his mind. He supported last month's budget resolution to begin repealing parts of Obamacare, and wants to see a replacement bill that will give people more choices.
Bilirakis was re-elected in November with 69 percent of the vote. His district has about 204,000 registered Republicans and 160,000 registered Democrats, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Some of his constituents showed up Saturday emboldened by recent demonstrations at airports and on the National Mall. One waved a rainbow flag. Another held a cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty.
The crowd got rowdy, booing a 77-year-old speaker who said former President Barack Obama played politics to ram the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010.
"Facts, not Fox!" one woman yelled.
Bilirakis took fire from the crowd, too, particularly when he criticized Obamacare.
"I've been hearing from my constituents for several years and they're not happy," he said.
"We are your constituents!" someone shot back.
But he also received praise.
"This has been a rough room and you've been a man of courage, a man of character, who has stood here through this," said Michael Fox, a progressive activist from St. Petersburg.
The forum ran 20 minutes longer than the two hours that had been scheduled. When it ended, Bilirakis told reporters it had been "a great listening session" and promised to take his constituents' comments to Washington.
But when asked if his thoughts had changed on the Affordable Care Act, the congressman turned to familiar talking points.
"We need to repeal because we need to do it right and expand health care," he said. "Right now, 73 percent of the counties only have one provider. It's too expensive. The premiums are too high. The deductibles are too high."
He plans to hold another listening session next Saturday in New Port Richey.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.