Disability rights advocates took their opposition to a new U.S. Senate health care bill directly to Mississippi’s senators on Thursday, with a series of rallies in front of the senators’ offices and meetings with Senate staff in Jackson.

Hammering home a message many said gets lost amid arguments over tax breaks and entitlements, many people with disabilities stressed that without Medicaid’s services they would not be able to hold jobs or live at home.

Lawerance Williams, who uses a wheelchair, said that for many people with disabilities, the biggest part of Medicaid isn’t just access to medicine and doctors, it’s waivers for services, such as an attendant who can help them get to work.

“The main thing I’m worried about is that people don’t realize how drastic this (bill) is. We need (Medicaid) to live our lives. Health insurance is a big part of it, but Medicaid provides more than just medicine. There are people who need help getting dressed in the morning and help getting out the door to work. How are they going to hold down a job if they can’t get dressed?”

The Better Care Reconciliation Act, which Republican senators unveiled Thursday, aims to replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act with less costly legislation that proponents say will save taxpayers money and reduce the federal deficit. But opponents argue any cuts only benefit the wealthiest taxpayers while leaving millions uninsured.

An analysis from the Congressional Budget Office released Monday backs up both sides. The new legislation would reduce federal spending by $321 billion over the next decade. But it also would leave 22 million currently insured Americans without any health insurance over that same time period, including 15 million people who now receive Medicaid.

The rally began early Thursday in front of Sen. Thad Cochran’s office on Capitol Street. As a light rain fell, approximately 40 protesters chanted and held up handmade signs, many of which echoed the idea that Medicaid gives its beneficiaries more independence, such as “Medicaid = freedom” and “Our homes, not nursing homes.”

After half an hour, four of the advocates met with staff in Cochran’s office. Members of the media were barred from attending but the attendees, three of whom use wheelchairs for their disabilities, and one of whom is a parent of a child with diabetes, said they followed a set template: Each person talked about how Medicaid’s services have affected their lives.

“They didn’t say much, they didn’t commit to anything. But they were clearly moved by our stories,” said Scott Crawford, who has a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

But Crawford and two of the other advocates said the reception from Sen. Roger Wicker’s office was more muted.

Unlike Cochran, who has yet to formally endorse the health care bill and called it a “work in progress,” Wicker has backed the legislation, appearing on CNN Thursday morning to talk about Republican senators’ commitment to “getting to a yes” on the controversial bill.

And, for some of the advocates, this difference showed, even in how staff members responded to their stories.

“I didn’t get the impression that (a staff member) was there to do anything other than feed us a line,” said Nicki Nichols whose 9-year-old daughter, Belle, uses Medicaid to pay for her diabetes care. “In Cochran’s office, I felt like they at least listened to us. They didn’t say anything overwhelmingly positive, but they also didn’t have a rebuttal for every concern we shared.”

After the meeting, Wicker released this statement:

“My staff in Jackson had a productive and thoughtful meeting about health care with a group of passionate Mississippians. Mississippians can see the byproducts of the current failing system, with health insurance premiums exploding by 116 percent.  That is not real reform, and neither is the exit of major insurers from the federal exchanges, leaving only one choice for Mississippians next year.  Medicaid is on an unsustainable path, putting at risk those who truly need it.

“The Senate is trying to replace the unworkable status quo with reforms that actually lead to lower costs and more choices for patients. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation about the draft plan. First, it is still undergoing changes. Second, in its current form, it would represent a historic transfer of power to the states to manage their affairs free from Washington interference. It would continue to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions and lower premiums.

“Rather than cutting funding for Medicaid – which some have falsely asserted – this plan increases the amount of money to the program at a more sustainable rate of growth than it is now. Finally, in states like Mississippi that did not expand Medicaid, thousands will now have the opportunity to receive a refundable tax credit to buy real insurance on the open market. I believe this plan will end up being better for the American people and better for the taxpayer long-term.”

Outside the meetings, the crowd remained enthusiastic, even as the sky became more threatening. Pamela Graham was one of the dozens who attended the protest, gliding in front of the Federal Court House, where Wicker has his office, on roller skates while waving a flag advocating disability rights. She said Medicaid allows her to care for her mother, who is disabled, while still working full time.

“I wouldn’t be able to work a job and pay my own bills without having someone to take care of her,”Graham said. “I’m the only one she has and I have to work to pay my bills and she doesn’t have a way to pay for her medical, for her assistance with bathing and dressing and Medicaid provides all of those services.”

For Melissa Cooper, Medicaid is what allows her to live a normal life. Cooper is a paraplegic and amputee who uses a Medicaid waiver program so she has help getting ready for work in the mornings. To her, Medicaid “matters because we’re not all looking for handouts.”

“If Medicaid is cut, then I won’t be allowed to go to work because I don’t have someone to assist me when it’s time to get prepared to come to work,” she said.

She said she attended the protest because she wanted to show people that those with disabilities depend on it to live normal lives.

“I don’t want anything handed to me, I just want a chance,” Cooper said. “Without Medicaid, I would probably have to go to a nursing home, but then you can’t go to a nursing home because they want money from Medicaid. So where will we go, to the streets?”

Catholic priest Jeremy Tobin called the Senate’s health care bill “draconian” and immoral, and noted the House version was unacceptable as well.

“What I’m concerned about is the total callousness, cruelty and gross immorality behind this bill,” Tobin said.

“It’s all about greed and money for the wealthy, and let the rest of us suffer. Especially the sick and the poor. That is immoral, that is unconscionable and as a Christian I cannot support that.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.