WESLEY CHAPEL — Like so many of the hundreds of constituents who showed up at U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' February town hall meetings on health care reform, Mona Bedard came away impressed. The Republican congressman seemed genuine, empathetic and determined to protect his constituents' access to health care, said Bedard, a Democrat who credited the Affordable Care Act with saving her 24-year-old daughter's life after needing a tumor removed.
"It's so frustrating because that night in Wesley Chapel he listened to us, he gave us the time, he seemed very sincere," said Bedard, 56. "Then he goes and votes for this bill that was so rushed through they didn't even wait for the (budgetary analysis) to come out. It almost feels like being stabbed in the back."
Kurt Accebach, an IT consultant and former hospital administrator from Odessa, also attended that town hall meeting in Wesley Chapel. In voting for a House bill that allows states to opt out of some federal health care requirements, he feels Bilirakis broke his promise to protect constituents with pre-existing conditions.
"Any state that has a Republican governor and legislature is going to opt out. … We've seen that with Rick Scott in Florida opposing Medicaid expansion," said Accebach, 52. "I'm a card-carrying Republican. I've voted for Gus. I'm not sure I will do that again."
The Rev. Mary Anne Dorner of Wesley Chapel has been trying to get a meeting with Bilirakis to better understand his reasoning, but said his office told her he is unavailable until August. She had urged the congressman to improve the Affordable Care Act's access to health care, not reduce it as the House Republicans' American Health Care Act appears to do.
"I think Gus Bilirakis is a caring person, I think he is a good person, but I think he feels assured he won't have any real competition for re-election because he is in a very safe seat that he practically inherited from his father (former U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis)," said Dorner, a 71-year-old Democrat.
Is Bilirakis in trouble?
Anyone attending his crowded community forums overwhelmingly dominated by constituents urging him to improve Obamacare rather than repeal it might think so. But don't bet on it.
Like the vast majority of the 435 U.S. House members, Bilirakis represents a seat that few objective analysts see as competitive.
Bilirakis has represented the 12th Congressional District, which includes all of Pasco County, north Pinellas County and a sliver of north Hillsborough, since 2007. Before that, Michael Bilirakis represented it since 1983. In 2016, Gus Bilirakis defeated a political newcomer, Clearwater attorney Robert Tager, by 37 percentage points. The incumbent spent $1.7 million on his re-election, compared to $44,000 by Tager, who is challenging Bilirakis again in 2018.
"I've been all over the place in the district and of the people that have come up to me more have said, 'I'm glad you did what you did because you kept your promise to repeal Obamacare,' than the other way around," Bilirakis, 54, said in an interview at his Tarpon Springs office inside St. Petersburg College's Michael and Evelyn Bilirakis Building.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke to nearly 20 random people outside the Walmart Supercenter in Wesley Chapel. The vast majority said they rely on employer-sponsored health insurance or have Medicare or VA coverage and are paying little attention to the health care debate.
Amber Melendez, a nurse at Florida Hospital, said she has seen firsthand how many people have taken advantage of Obamacare to access health care and would hate to see that peeled away.
But Dave Miller, who is on disability, said he has seen the price of insulin skyrocket in recent years, and he assumes the Affordable Care Act must be the culprit.
"Whatever they come up with, I think they need to make sure people with pre-existing conditions are protected," said Miller, 53.
The Democrat-aligned Center for American Progress estimates that nearly 280,000 non-elderly residents in Bilirakis' district have a pre-existing condition.
Bilirakis has no town halls coming up, but said he has been meeting privately with groups to explain and reassure people about the American Health Care Act. It wasn't his ideal bill, he said, but it is much better than critics are painting it and he is confident it will improve in the Senate and then in conference between the House and Senate.
The politically easy move would have been to simply vote against it, Bilirakis said.
"I'm not in the no caucus. But I do a lot of work behind the scenes to make bills better. We got assurances that this was going to work," he said. "This is a good start, but I really think we're in the first quarter, the end of the first quarter."
Among the more controversial elements of the bill that passed the House earlier this month is an amendment allowing states to seek a waiver from federal insurance regulations that prevent insurance companies from charging more to patients with pre-existing conditions. States could receive a waiver and allow premium increases for people whose insurance lapsed for more than 63 days, so long as they could prove the waiver would lead to lower premiums, increase coverage or expand the number of health plans available to consumers.
Still, critics and nonpartisan analysts including the AARP say the latest version weakens Obamacare's protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Even people with employer-sponsored health insurance could see annual or lifetime caps on insurance, they say.
Bilirakis said he would prefer the bill contained no provision for state waivers, and did not know whether leaders such as Gov. Rick Scott and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both fierce Affordable Care Act critics, would seek a waiver.
"I haven't talked to them," he said. "I would hope that they wouldn't."
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.