NEW PORT RICHEY — U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis got another earful Saturday from opponents of the proposed Republican repeal of Obamacare.
But this time out, opponents of the Affordable Care Act had their own cheering section.
The mix, while combustible, proved loud and often rude but stopped short of actual fisticuffs.
More than 300 people came out to the West Pasco County government center for the second of Bilirakis' "listening sessions" on health care reform. And as happened during a session last week in Pinellas, a majority of those who spoke offered strong support of the law and urged Bilirakis to vote against killing it.
"We're not afraid of Syrian immigrants," said Donna Bradley, 60, of New Port Richey. "We're not afraid of these seven countries that (President Donald Trump's) put on this watch list. We're not even afraid of the Mexicans coming with the wall not being built. We're afraid of losing our health care."
Bilirakis, a Republican who wants to replace Obamacare because its costs have skyrocketed, once again had no change of heart on his opposition to the health law. He told Bradley, "President Trump has stated he wants to expand health care." Boos followed.
"It's a fact," Bilirakis said. "It's a fact."
The support for the Affordable Care Act that Bilirakis has heard in the last week stands in contrast to the conservative bona fides of his district, which includes all of Pasco and parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
But with the local GOP sending out emails urging Affordable Care Act opponents to attend, this session wouldn't pass without a handful of Bilirakis' constituents taking a hard swing at the law.
Pete Franco, 61, of South Pasadena told Bilirakis succinctly, "Rip Obamacare to shreds. It needs to be ripped. There's plenty of people here who obviously like Obamacare. There's a massive number who don't."
The crowd loudly jeered disagreement as Bilirakis said, "That's true."
Bill Akins, 63, of Hudson, the secretary of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee, sparked the largest eruption from the pro-ACA crowd when he said the law contained a provision for death panels, which PolitiFact ranked its Lie of the Year in 2009.
"There's a provision in there that anyone over the age of 74 has to go before what is effectively a death panel," Akins said.
He was answered with calls of: "You lie! You're lying!"
"Who here has read the Affordable Health Care Act?" Akins asked. After a large number of people raised their hands, he said, "I seriously doubt it."
Jill Schwitzgebel of Lutz said her 20-year-old daughter faces serious health issues that would be impossible to manage without an Affordable Care Act health insurance plan.
"If you were to repeal the ACA and take away her ability to get health insurance and her access to health care and medications, she would be disabled within a year," she said. "You would take a young woman who is healthy and capable of contributing to our country . . . and she wouldn't even be able to work regularly."
Tammy Jackson, 56, of Dunedin held up a photo of her granddaughter Brinleigh, who was born prematurely at 28 weeks and required extensive medical care.
"Rep. Bilirakis, I'd like you to meet my $1.2 million grandchild," she said. "She hit that dollar amount when she was 4 months old. . . . She has ongoing pre-existing conditions from her birth. I want to make sure she can be all she can be. And that only happens if she has access and affordability for health care."
Bilirakis said he understands that people fear losing health care, and he said repeatedly that he wants to replace the health law with something better. He said it was good to talk to constituents to get ideas.
"I thought it was a great discussion, a good listening session and every member of Congress should do this," said Bilirakis, saying he wanted a new law that kept the more popular provisions of the ACA, such as eliminating coverage denials for pre-existing conditions and banning lifetime benefit caps.
"I want to do it right."
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.