TAMPA — Congress passed it, the Supreme Court upheld it, and Americans rejected the presidential candidate who vowed to repeal it.
But the battle over Obamacare continues to rage, and on Wednesday, Tampa was ground zero.
Some 500 people fired up to kill the health care overhaul turned out for a town hall meeting Wednesday night to bemoan the law — and jeer and groan at any mention of Republicans skittish about refusing to fund it.
"They're afraid to have a showdown with someone who's tearing up our country," said Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who now leads the conservative Heritage Foundation. "This is the time. This might be the last off-ramp for us to stop Obamacare before it gets so enmeshed in our culture that it's impossible to change."
Outside the Crowne Plaza Westshore, nearly two dozen people with "Hands off my Obamacare" posters stood in protest of the event organized by Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. Down the street a few hours earlier, a group dedicated to protecting and cheering for Obamacare summoned the media to denounce Heritage Action and its supporters.
"We have one basic message: Don't repeal our health care. Don't you dare," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, a group created to push back against Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act.
Heritage's Tampa town hall was the third stop in a nine-city Defund Obamacare national tour, and Woodhouse's group is organizing pro-Obamacare events at every stop.
"We refuse to let insurance companies go back to denying coverage to millions of Americans who have pre-existing conditions," Woodhouse said. "We refuse to allow insurance companies make women pay more than men in premiums. We refuse to have 3.1 million young people kicked off their parents' insurance. We refuse to cut off 71 million Americans who receive free preventive services because of health reform, such as cancer screenings."
Despite the calls from Heritage and senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz of Texas, to refuse to fund the health care law even if it leads to a government shutdown, many establishment Republican leaders fear that would lead to a public backlash against the GOP.
"The dumbest idea I've ever heard of," North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr said recently.
The packed crowd at the town hall, however, seemed at least as angry with Republicans wary about trying to defund the health care law as about the law itself. No elected Republicans from the Tampa Bay area attended.
"The level with expectation for those Republicans is extremely high," said Tim Curtis, a tea party activist from Tampa. "We don't want people up in Washington who pay lip service and say, 'I'm opposed to Obamacare, I'm opposed to Obamacare,' and then vote to fund it."
Rafael Cruz, father of Sen. Ted Cruz, had the crowd roaring when he urged them to hold Republicans accountable on their votes to include health care reform funding in the budget.
"Through the ballot box we can make them shake in their boots," he said. "You vote the right way or we're going to vote you out office!"
Likewise, DeMint scoffed at Republicans worried that defunding Obamacare or shutting down the government could cost Republicans control of the U.S. House.
"Since when do Americans not fight for what they believe in because they're afraid they might lose," said DeMint, who predicts millions will lose the insurance provided by employers once the law goes fully into effect. "And if they're not going to fight for what they promised in their campaigns why do they need to be in the majority?"
The bulk of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect on Jan. 1, when all individuals will be required to have health insurance. Various groups are aggressively working to enroll millions of uninsured Floridians in health insurance, and advocates are lamenting that the state of Florida is doing little to help with the effort, with enrollment starting Oct. 1.
"We have not had much help from the state, to tell you the truth," said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, a health advocacy organization working to educate people about the law and enroll people.
Dr. Mona Mangat, a St. Petersburg allergy specialist who attended Wednesday's pro-Obamacare news conference, said critics have spread misinformation and confusion about the law. A 40-year-old small businessman she sees with severe, life-threatening asthma, lacks health insurance and receives charity care and sample medication from her and the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. The law, she said, may well save his life.
"I'm buying him time to get to Jan. 1, 2014. Because I know on Jan. 1, 2014, he will be eligible to buy health insurance through the exchange with a subsidy," she said. "For too many Americans one serious illness can mean bankruptcy, often even if they have insurance. "But more important to me, one serious illness can mean death for someone who's uninsured. That all changes on Jan. 1, 2014."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]