It's one thing to watch snippets of Health Care Reform Town Hall meetings on the evening news, but entirely another to find oneself in an auditorium packed with 850+ people, including a bunch who are angry, belligerent and even violent.
This particular Town Hall took place last night in Durham, North Carolina with U.S. Rep. David Price sharing a panel with three others, including Chuck Stone, director of North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care. They were four men, all pro-reform.
One protester later complained that the panel was stacked, that it should have included voices from the other side of the aisle -- that's one point this writer will easily concede to the opposition. The process should always remain democratic, no matter how messy, painful, inefficient and even weird it may become.
After the pledge of allegiance, and exhortations from the moderator to remain civil -- we were in the genteel South after all -- at least five angry young men were escorted to the door, one with his middle finger pointed defiantly up on the way out.
In the beginning, each panelist briefly argued for the overall importance of reform in the health care and health insurance industries today.
Stone reminded the audience that the nationwide debate is not about President Obama nor illegal immigrants nor Democrats and Republicans. He did point out, however, that both Republican President Teddy Roosevelt supported universal health insurance in the early 20th century and Democrat Harry Truman fully supported national health insurance after World War II.
"Health care should be a basic human right," Stone said, followed by loud cheering from the those who support universal coverage and equally loud jeering from those who oppose it.
Price later outlined the shared principles of the five bills currently moving through Congress, emphasizing that everyone must have access to affordable health insurance and that everyone needs to be brought into the system. He argued in favor of a public option.
At the same time, he wisely acknowledged the complexity of the situation. "It won't be simple or cost-free." But, he reminded the audience, every other industrial country in the world has already figured out a way -- in short, it's about time for America.
At this point, a guy in the balcony hit another guy in the face, creating a distraction that lasted a few minutes until the perpetrator and his victim were ushered out and all attention returned to the stage.
After Price spoke, about forty "cons" lined up in front of a microphone on one side of the auditorium, with an equal number of "pros" on the other. In case there was any confusion, each microphone had a "con" or "pro" sign attached to the stand. But somehow, several cons ended up on the pro side, robbing several reform supporters of their chance to be heard.
On the con side, one woman became increasingly upset as she tried to read her written remarks. She finally blurted out: "Socialism is one step before communism!"
One man asked why we should have a government-run health care plan when people in other countries hate their own systems and are trying to get out of it.
Pros in the audience shouted "Where?" "Who?" "Which countries?"
The man finally shouted into the microphone: "The Soviet bloc!" and sat down.
At various times during the debate, the cons shouted at the panelists: "Let me have a choice!" "Health care reform should be supported by the Constitution!" "How can we believe you?" "All the money the government has is stolen from us!" "Liar!"
In one of the more bizarre twists of the evening, an elderly physician seized on the wild rumor about "death panels" and insisted that Obama's plan would "kill off grandma and grandpa."
Price explained the value of the "consultation" option in the bills and that he himself had taken advantage of the opportunity, offered through his personal Congressional health insurance plan, to meet with doctors and discuss how he would like to be treated at the end of his life.
But there was no sign that the physician or any other cons listened to a word of the response.
In another twist, one con cleverly quoted Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's op-ed from Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, in which Mackey argued that while "we clearly need health-care reform," he is against a "massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system."
Instead, Mackey proposed eight alternative reforms to help lower the cost of health care, including tort reform.
This was the argument picked up by the con last night -- if doctors didn't have to pay such high malpractice insurance fees, they could charge their patients less and health care costs would drop significantly. Tort reform, he said, would solve the problem entirely.
Price argued against any tort reform that included a cap on awards -- which only frustrated the con side more -- but some liberals acknowledged among themselves that limiting payouts might not be a bad thing. However, the impact of tort reform on overall health care costs, Price said, might be just one or two percent.
The irony was, well, delicious. Who would have thought the health food champion of liberal baby boomers everywhere would be feeding the cons some of their best lines?
(As an aside, a number of universal health care proponents are now boycotting Whole Foods as a result of Mackey's stance against government-led reform.)
After 75 minutes of sometimes thoughtful, often hostile discourse, I came away from the meeting with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I was hopeful that after all of these deep-seeded fears and rumors and wild accusations are elicited, tackled and dispelled -- and the rage and protest simmer down -- politicians and constituents can get on with the business of putting together a plan that, while it certainly won't please everyone, addresses the desperate need for serious health care reform in a country too great to leave so many of its people without help.
On the other hand, the resistance to change runs deep in many people, and they are clearly determined to cling to that fear and loathing.
Perhaps it's because they have so little and they're desperately afraid that someone -- and the government is a favorite whipping boy on this one -- will take it all away from them.They're joined by another group of reform opponents who have so much; their fear, too, is that government will take it all away from them.
The key ingredient in this debate seems to be fear of change and fear of the government.
After the meeting, a number of pros and cons continued their arguments outside under the glare of TV cameras. I noticed one pro vehemently explaining to a con the crux of the whole thing: that a good national health care plan would mean that no one, under any circumstances, would be denied health care.
The con, whom we had seen earlier at the microphone, seemed to be listening intently. Whether he was just preparing a retort or absorbing this insight I couldn't tell. Unfortunately, I didn't hear his response, if he even had one.
But something about that brief one-on-one exchange gave me hope.
Perhaps there will be significant reform in this country after all?
Some additional sources:
A Brief History of Universal Health Care Efforts in the U.S.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal
Bill Clinton Urges Progressive Push on Health Care
Ad Campaign Counterattacks Against Overhaul's Critics
A Primer on the Details of Health Care Reform
Grandma/grandpa puppet photo from www.puppetshoppe.com
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