Jamie Longazel: Barletta takes coal baron approach on health care


Even though he eventually agreed to vote for it, Congressman Lou Barletta initially said he could not support the American Health Care Act (AHCA). This was the Republican attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

While I was glad to hear of his initial opposition, I found Barletta’s rhetoric deeply troubling from beginning to end. In a statement on March 20, he said, “I am concerned that the bill lacks sufficient safeguards for verifying whether or not an individual applying for health care tax credits is lawfully in this country and eligible to receive them.”

Though troubled, I am not surprised. This sort of scapegoating catapulted Barletta into prominence. I have watched this play out for over a decade while doing research for my book, “Undocumented Fears,” which analyzes the politics surrounding Hazleton’s 2006 passage of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA).

The divisive politics Barletta has made a living on have a long history in the anthracite coal region. What I call “coal baron politics” pit working people against one another for the benefit of the wealthy.

In the coal mining days, especially when times were tough, wealthy barons fed propaganda to workers from established ethnic groups, warning them of non-existing threats allegedly posed by immigrants.

As a result, established communities would direct their blame downward at the most vulnerable group rather than upward at the coal barons. This tactic made barons immensely wealthy and kept them from having to worry about people coming together in protest of their shared destitution.

Barletta, like the coal barons before him, is often honest when acknowledging that people are suffering. But when it comes to why people suffer, nativist assumptions and inaccuracies litter his rhetoric.

Leading up to the IIRA, he drew attention to Hazleton’s dire economic situation, particularly the city’s dwindling budget. Standing alone, this would be a legitimate concern.

However, his go-to tactic has been to mis-attribute blame, usually by scapegoating immigrants. Without providing any reliable data, he insisted that the IIRA was necessary because undocumented immigrants were draining city resources and committing uncontrollable amounts of crime.

There is no data because this was not true. As I explain in more depth in my book, immigrants began arriving in Hazleton at a time when the city’s economic decline was well under way.

When he urges us to focus narrowly on untruths about undocumented immigrants, we fail to notice that there are modern-day tycoons making immense profits by gaming the system. Consider the Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) initiative.

Several massive companies — some with longstanding reputations for low pay and poor working conditions — are going years without paying a dime in taxes. And if fiscal burdensomeness is really the issue, perhaps we should focus on the more than

$1 million the City of Hazleton owes in legal fees because of Barletta’s wasteful crusade to overturn a court ruling against the IIRA.

The same pattern characterizes the congressman’s health care politics.

The jab he took at the ACA when initially voicing opposition to the AHCA was justified. “Families in the 11th District,” he pointed out, “are still struggling to put food on the table and foot the costs of their own health care bills.” While there is evidence indicating that the ACA is an improvement from what we had, I will concede that it is not ideal. Too many people are still paying too much for something so vital.

Yet after appeasing those who are not getting adequate care under the ACA, Barletta again unfairly places the bull’s eye on undocumented immigrants. He says, “half a million people received a total of $750 million in health care subsidies, even though recipients could not prove their lawful presence in the United States.”

For one, there is no proof that the people who failed to submit eligibility paperwork to the government are not citizens. There are many reasons people don’t file paperwork.

Even so, it is nonsensical to portray people receiving subsidies as milking the system. Under the ACA, subsidies ultimately all go to the insurance companies, and those who receive subsidies are still paying out of pocket for the remainder of their premiums.

People do not pursue subsidies because they are out to harm ordinary Americans. They do it because they are human beings who need health care.

What he fails to point out is that the

11 million people who live in the U.S. without documentation are ineligible for the ACA and have suffered as a result. Let me restate that: Undocumented immigrants are suffering, not benefitting, because of our existing health care policy.

The real story is that insurance companies, drug companies and hospitals have continued to make plenty of money under Obamacare. Some have even reported record profits.

Not coincidentally, the Congressional Budget Office expected them to do quite well under the proposed AHCA.

If we want the health care we all deserve and want to see progress in our community, we must face up to an important reality: Immigrants are not our enemies.

In places like Hazleton, the vast majority of us are working-class people struggling to get by. No longer can we afford to cater to a politician who blames dispossessed people struggling even to get into a doctor’s office, while the CEO of UnitedHealth made over $20 million in 2015.

The good news is that on many occasions throughout this region’s history, working-class people came together despite their differences to push back against the coal barons and demand better treatment. It is time for us to do the same.

Jamie Longazel, a Hazleton native, is an assistant sociology professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio.