Protesters gathered outside Sen. Pat Toomey's state offices for 24 hours in June 2017 to protest the Senate GOP's healthcare plan. Credit: Anna Orso / Billy Penn

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Marie Conte stood on the edge of Chestnut Street Thursday afternoon in Old City, fully donning purple and white scrubs dotted with cartoon cats and dogs. The Center City resident and part-time office worker in a pediatrician’s office held a sign that read “healthcare is a moral issue.” And she was surrounded by dozens of other protesters who say they’re just trying to get U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s attention.

Conte said she’s been trying to get hold of Toomey’s office for weeks through calls and emails. She heard back once in an email she described as a “standard response.” But Conte’s still trying, despite the fact that Toomey — one of the 13 Republican senators charged with drafting the Senate’s healthcare plan — seems unlikely to vote against it.

So why’s she still trying?

“Silence is death,” she said. “We have to keep supporting each other, or we’ll spiral into despair.”

Calls to Toomey are up ‘sharply’

Conte was among about 150 people who showed up for the kickoff Thursday afternoon of a “24-hour vigil” outside Toomey’s Philadelphia office near Second and Chestnut in Old City. Though the numbers tapered off at times, that demonstration continued through the afternoon Friday. At one point Thursday evening, a separate protest organized by Planned Parenthood was taking place at the same time at Thomas Paine Plaza, and Toomey’s name was dropped there, too.

About 150 people gathered for the beginning of the 24-hour protest. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

The impending fight over the Republican plan to dramatically revamp the country’s healthcare system by repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act has reignited organizers’ interest in Toomey, a second-term fiscal conservative who’s had a role in drafting the Senate GOP’s version of the healthcare bill.

Following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, protesters and activists targeted Toomey in droves, making him one of the most protested lawmakers in the country. The coordinated campaign against him in the early months of 2017 not only included protests at every one of his state offices, but also flooded his phone lines and even jammed up his fax machine.

Then, like elsewhere in the country, the tensions seemed to calm a bit. Following the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act, Senate leaders worked largely in the shadows to prepare their own version of an Obamacare replacement bill. For a bit, it seemed as though the massive demonstrations against Toomey had cooled.

But as the Senate inches closer to a vote on its healthcare bill, organizers in Philly and beyond are back to the streets and the phone lines and the fax machines. And they’re back to railing against Toomey. Steve Kelly, a spokesman for the senator, said call volume and constituent feedback is still up “sharply” in every office.

And of course there’s Tuesdays with Toomey. The large group of protesters have staged actions at Toomey’s state offices every Tuesday for months, and they’re now hyper-focused on healthcare. Other organizations are adding to the steady drumbeat of opposition.

The impact on Pennsylvanians

Antoinette Kraus is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, the Philadelphia-based progressive group that largely organized the “24-hour vigil” that took place late last week. She said the organization didn’t set out to “camp” at Toomey’s office. Instead, she said, that’s what organically came up when the group and its partners brainstormed how they could foster a dialogue and advocate for increased access to affordable healthcare.

“It’s important for anyone — Democrat or Republican — to understand that this has real implications in Pennsylvania,” Kraus said. “People are watching this and are really fearful around the Medicaid discussion and what cuts to Medicaid would mean.”

The impact the Senate’s bill would have on people who rely on Medicaid is still up for debate. The bill was just released publicly on Thursday, and the Congressional Budget Office has yet to publish its independent analysis of the impact the bill would have. Under the Senate’s version of the bill, federal funding for Medicaid expansion would be reduced between 2021 and 2023, and additional reductions in funding would continue from there.

Democrats claim the bill would decimate Medicaid as we know it. Republicans contend that exaggerates the bill’s impact. In a statement, Toomey emphasized the Senate plan keeps the Medicaid expansion covering able-bodied, working-age, childless adults, “while asking the states to eventually contribute their fair share for this care.”

“Further,” he said in the statement, “this bill works to ensure Medicaid is sustainable for future generations by modestly reducing, seven and a half years from now, the rate at which federal spending on the program will grow.”

The bill also blocks federal reimbursements to Planned Parenthood for a year. Maggie Groff, the vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the group’s asking supporters to continue calling their representatives, including Toomey.

“Although Senator Toomey has never been much of a friend to Planned Parenthood’s issues,” Groff said, “we need to impress upon him how important Planned Parenthood is to the healthcare safety net in our state.”

Protesters advocating in favor of federal funding for Planned Parenthood gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza Thursday night. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

‘We can’t just sit here passively’

Vicki Miller, one of the founders of the Philadelphia chapter of Indivisible, a progressive group that sprouted up to “resist” Trump’s agenda, was one of the planners of a June 1 “Town Hall with or without Senator Toomey.” Toomey didn’t show, and his refusal to hold a town hall in the city of Philadelphia remains a major sticking point with those who oppose him.

Miller said Indivisible Philadelphia is planning healthcare focused letter-writing and phone-calling campaigns targeting Toomey. She said she believes calls to Toomey’s office have increased in the last few days, saying when she called his office last Monday, a person answered right away. When she called Thursday, it went straight to voicemail.

“It would be a better sign if the voicemail were full, and it used to be you could barely get through,” she said, adding that there’s a “fear” that it’s difficult to “keep the energy up.” But, she said, “we can’t just sit here passively and allow him to think or say that everything seems to be fine in his state.”

Danielle Moore, an organizer with the progressive group Organizing for Action, coordinated a week-long campaign to call representatives from across the country, and the Pennsylvania target is, of course, Toomey. The campaign began last week and ends Wednesday.

She said not receiving a response from Toomey’s office can prove frustrating. They continue anyway.

“To have an avalanche of people call into Pat Toomey and be like ‘cutting this program hurts me as a Pennsylvanian,’” she said, “that shows Senator Toomey that what he is doing does not reflect what these Pennsylvanians want and need from their government.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.