Peter Goes to Washington: An Interview With Peter Morley

On July 28, 2017, the United States Senate was about to vote on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the Republican Controlled Senate had the votes to do—it unless Democrats could convince three Senators to vote with them to defend the health insurance of millions of Americans. Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski declared their intentions and brought the issue within a single vote that would have been provided by Mike Pence as he occupies the office of vice president. The vote would come down to the senior Senator from Arizona.

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Just days before John McCain, who would soon after lose his own fight with the pre-existing condition of Glioblastoma-a form of cancer, voted to allow the repeal of the ACA to come to a floor vote in the Senate. The imminent threat of the ACA failing with no replacement sparked marches in protest across the nation, but the threat had already sparked a change in Peter Morley. Morley has experienced first-hand the difference between having a health crisis with and without insurance coverage and he doesn’t want anyone else to go through the intense financial anxiety that comes with an illness and no coverage.

This past week he returned from his 15th trip to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and committee staff. He travels with a lawyer friend and his famous sidekick, Natasha. When I spoke to him briefly for this piece he reported that he was exhausted but hopeful. He recalled what it was like in the summer of 2017 when Senator McCain arrived back at the Senate after surgery, gave the famous “return to regular order” plea, and then voted for cloture—the vote that comes prior to the official vote on the Senate floor—that would allow the Republican majority to hold a vote on the repeal of the ACA.

“It rocked me to my core,” Morley said in his unimposing tone. He recalled sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and deciding on the day before his birthday, “The best birthday gift I could give to myself was to convince the Senators not to repeal the ACA.”

When he arrived in Senator McCain’s office there were no cameras, and when you ask Morley he will deny the visit had any measurable impact but he spent some time speaking with McCain’s executive assistant—a very powerful position in the halls of Congress. They bonded over lupus, the chronic condition that Peter deals with on a daily basis, and her friend who also struggled with the illness. Sharing his own health history and the history of others had become commonplace, but a lot was on the line here.

The July 28th vote was a moment of truth. Would the tireless work of advocates, the marches, and the speeches be enough? Peter went to bed. “I couldn’t bear to watch.” The late night vote was televised live as President Barack Obama’s signature legislation was once again on the chopping block by a purely partisan attack. Obama’s 2008 rival entered the hall and signaled his vote by dramatically raising his thumb and turning it downward in a “No” vote. The bill failed and the Affordable Care Act—a law based largely on the 1990’s Republican healthcare plan designed by the Heritage Foundation to be an answer to the progressive plan presented by the Clinton administration—would survive yet another Republican attack. It would not be the last.

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Fast forward to last week. Peter took the train back to D.C. for his fifteenth trip to the nation’s capital. This trip was different. For one, he arrived early. “To this point I had seen the inside of congressional offices and inside the capital.” People would ask him if he’d seen the Smithsonian or toured the White House and the answer was always, no. For someone who has lupus, an autoimmune disease that can cause chronic pain, Peter kept an impressive schedule while in town—11 meetings with congressional staff and members of the House and Senate. But on this trip he did get to spend a little time looking around and it was probably helpful in settling his nerves to testify before the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee.

For Peter, this has felt like a calling. “People started sending me their stories over Twitter.” Although the long days in Washington are punishing with 10-15 meetings in a single day, “I focus on one meeting at a time. I try not to overwhelm myself and plan my schedule strategically to get to the next office.” He says that it doesn’t always work out that way but he has to try. “Going back and forth from the House offices to the Senate offices and back again for meetings can be grueling.”

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“From day one, I witnessed the Trump Administration’s unrelenting sabotage to the ACA. Short Term Plans and Association Health Plans are an assault on my protections allowing insurers to bend the rules of the ACA and create fine print that people like myself don’t have time to comprehend.” copyright Peter Morley 2019

But he still continues to puts himself through this, including meeting with Republican members of Congress who tried to kill the ACA. I asked him what it’s like to sit across the table with men (let’s face it, the vast majority of elected Republicans are men) who are diametrically opposed to everything he advocates for and his reply was, “I hear them out.”

The Republican Party has a majority in the Senate and they hold 198 seats in the House. In sharing his experience, Peter bestows some advice on strategy that can and should be used even if your Senator or Representative shares your views. “I try to cultivate a relationship,” he says, which means, “I try to hear them out. I’m not in their office to debate them. I always have a specific purpose for the meeting.” While he says that he doesn’t usually agree with the GOP, some Republicans have been honest brokers. He praised outgoing Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander for sharing information and being approachable. He maintains hope that the bipartisan Murray/Alexander efforts will help shore up the ACA.

“Calls really make a difference. Call your Senator’s or Representative’s office once a week. You don’t need to deliver a speech and you can talk to staff. You’re just leaving a message, “I want my Senator [or member of Congress] to protect the ACA.” This would be translatable to other issues important to you. “It only takes a few hundred calls,” he says, to make a big impact.

Peter also advises that it’s “important to take time out” for self-care and “come back refreshed.” Even with the greatest threat to the ACA coming out of a Texas court in which Republicans sued and a judge ruled the ACA to be unconstitutional, “I believe it will survive,” he says. If it does, that will mean that Attorneys General, led by California’s Xavier Becerra, either wins the appeals process or members of Congress on the right put politics aside to strengthen the Affordable Care Act by legislation. Perhaps we should call it JesusCare.

You can find Peter Morley and his sidekick, Natasha, on twitter @morethanmySLE

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