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'Open season on all of us': Organization for the disabled blocks State Street to protest health care bill

SALT LAKE CITY — Tensions mounted between protesters and motorists during a demonstration downtown in opposition to the Better Care Reconciliation Act, though no arrests were made and no citations issued.

About 150 people began protesting the health care bill outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building about noon. Eventually, a few dozen of them spread out across the south crosswalk in the intersection of State Street and 100 South, unfurling two banners that together said "SENATOR HATCH DON'T KILL US" and stayed there for roughly 30 minutes chanting various slogans and criticisms, including "My Medicaid matters" and "Health care is a human right."

Protesters blocked State Street on Tuesday in a effort to rally against the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Video by Ravell Call, Deseret News

The protest was organized by the Disabled Rights Action Committee, which released a statement Tuesday saying a letter they sent to Sen. Orrin Hatch's office had not received a reply.

"Our letter apparently didn’t get his attention, so hopefully this will," said Lopeti Penima'ani, chairman of the committee.

Despite the organization's promise that protesters would block State Street "until we get a satisfactory response from Sen. Hatch or until we are arrested and/or forcibly removed," the group dispersed without incident several minutes after police arrived to redirect traffic at the intersection.

"We didn't have any arrests any major issues (at the) protest, just a little bit of traffic control," Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking told the Deseret News.

One car driving south on State Street honked at the group and drove up to them, though it wasn't clear whether the male driver intended to confront the group, get them to let him through or both. Multiple protesters alleged at the time that the car had made contact with one of them.

After a minute the car backed away and turned left to go east on 100 South, but one protester had broken away from the group and maneuvered his wheelchair in front of the vehicle, mirroring its movements for several seconds, shaking his fist at the driver and eventually slapping the car as it drove away.

The same man and a woman also broke away from the group to maneuver their wheelchairs in front of multiple other vehicles traveling east through the intersection.

At least one other driver confronted protesters verbally, according to Wilking.

Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock took issue with the message of the banners and said the senator's "legacy is without equal" as it pertains to passing compassionate health care legislation.

"Political engagement is valuable," Whitlock said in a statement. "But if activists can’t make their point without inflammatory rhetoric … they do more damage to the debate than credit to their viewpoint."

He also added that Hatch "has met with and gathered input from every single group that has reached out through the proper channels."

The protesters, many of whom are disabled, feel "desperate" because they see their lifeline Medicaid benefits being threatened by the Better Care Reconciliation Act, said Rose Park resident Luke, who declined to give his last name.

"We're really scared," he said, adding that his disabled 9-year-old son relies on expensive services paid for by Medicaid.

Kellie Henderson, co-founder of Utah Indivisible which opposes President Donald Trump, said emotions are high because the Republicans' proposed replacement to the Affordable Care Act is much worse than anyone who uses Medicaid anticipated.

"This (bill) is just completely out of left field," Henderson said. "I wouldn't want business as usual."

Barbara Toomer, an organizer for the disabled rights group, said people feel especially vulnerable to cutbacks in Medicaid. The Congressional Budget Office reported Monday that the Senate's bill would result in $772 billion in reduced federal spending Medicaid through 2026.

"It's open season on all of us," Toomer said.

Multiple political office seekers also attended the protest to make a stand against the bill, including Republican Tom Taylor, who plans to run against Republican Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah.

"I consider this bill blood money, I really do," Taylor said of the projected Medicaid cuts. "People will die because of this."

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