Back home after debt debate, healthcare reform is the topic for GOP lawmakers

Healthcare reform still loomed large in voters' minds last week as members of Congress began their traditional series of recess town hall meetings.

The issue had drifted down the political agenda after the 2010 midterm elections, even amid several court challenges to the law and news of more exemptions from the plan's individual mandate.

But now, after a debt-ceiling deal that left many Republican House members cold, some freshmen already have tried to frame their 'yea' votes by referring again to the healthcare bill.

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In one of the first town hall meetings of the break, on the morning of Aug. 2, freshman Republican Rep. Rob Woodall (Ga.) told a group of Rotarians in Forsyth County that the final debt deal cut roughly the same amount of spending that the Affordable Care Act would have incurred — about $900 billion.

"So if you think about what’s small and what’s big, understand that … we’re going to have erased…the same price tag that was on the president’s healthcare bill over 10 years," Woodall said, according to the Forsyth News.

Another freshman — Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) — told a packed auditorium in Wauconda, Ill. on Thursday:

“I hate to keep harping on this healthcare legislation, but virtually every businessman and woman I talk to brings it up. And they all say the same thing … business right now is just sitting on their hand[s] because they’re scared to death."

Walsh, however, encountered some apparent opposition to his views when he referred to the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare.” A member of the audience shouted back: “That’s not what it’s called!”, according to the Northwest Herald.

In an interview, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said that the recent focus on government debt all but ensured that healthcare reform would return to the spotlight.

"My position is you can’t talk about the debt unless you talk about healthcare, that’s just a fact," Griffin said, adding that he's communicating "a lot about healthcare, a lot."

"Mandatory spending is 60 percent of our budget so you can’t discuss the budget at all unless you’re talking about healthcare in some form or fashion," he said.

Woodall, who spoke to the Rotarians in Georgia, told The Hill that the healthcare bill remains "at the forefront of every economic discussion" in his state.

"The cost and uncertainty surrounding the health bill is most definitely a factor in Georgia's continued high employment rate," he said.

"I cannot hold a town hall meeting without [it] coming up.  Voters are still very much concerned about its price, its mandates, and its expansion of government control," he said.

The House voted in January to repeal the Affordable Care Act — the first big move for the new Republican majority. 

But even as the Senate ignored that vote, halting the effort, many freshman House members still emphasize healthcare reform when they discuss their decisions to run in the first place.

Some, like freshman Reps. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) are former healthcare professionals.

On Aug. 9, Bucshon, a heart surgeon, will join two other members of the so-called "GOP Doctors' Caucus" at a town hall meeting devoted exclusively to healthcare in Virginia Beach, Va.

Kim Mosser, a spokeswoman for the event's host, freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), said they had been planning it for "quite a while," and that the issue remains relevant, even if it's not in the news.

"We believe there is justifiable confusion and anxiety over the future of healthcare in America, and we want to stay in communication with our constituents about it," she said.

Among the congressmen who will speak, Rep. Bucshon alone explicitly mentioned the healthcare overhaul in a statement announcing the event.

"The Affordable Care Act did nothing to address the rising cost of healthcare and there are many good ideas that can help bring those costs down," he said.

"I look forward to speaking about this with the people of VA-2."

Ramsey Cox contributed.