By Joan Kark
On Tuesday, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) arrived to host a packed town hall meeting on health care. I thought about Boucher's bravery and just how scared I was to be there. There were no scanners or bag checkers--typical for a Boucher meeting, but then again, there was nothing typical about this town hall meeting. I looked around for suspicious people or bags that might contain weapons. I was comforted by the sight of the local sheriff.
People held up signs for and against health care reform. One man paraded a large "Don't Tread On Me" flag down the aisle and along the front of the stage, which caused many people to yell in approval. I was reminded that I live in Virginia after all.
Boucher began his remarks to the capacity crowd. To my surprise, most people quieted down, except for a few hecklers who opposed health care reform, but they had little effect.
Boucher mentioned that he had voted "no" on the health care bill that had passed through the Energy and Commerce Committee. Boucher drew big applause when he said he had reservations about the public option. He said that the public option would not work well for rural hospitals that depend largely on private insurance to offset the lower earnings from Medicare and Medicare. He wanted more work to be done on the bill before it was rushed to the floor along with the other bills percolating up from different house committees.
Boucher was complimentary of the bipartisan health care negotiations in the Senate, lamenting the fact that Republicans refused to work with Democrats in the House. In the end though, he said he supported health care reform and was hopeful a bill would pass. This remark elicited both applause and boos.
After Boucher's remarks, Dr. Ed Murphy, CEO of Carillion Health Systems, spoke to the crowd about the nation's health care problems. When he said that 34 million people were without health care insurance, one man in the rear yelled: "How many of them are illegal?" Murphy responded by saying that 34 million U.S. citizens are without health care.
Murphy also said that 62 percent of bankruptcies last year were due to medical costs even though 75 percent of those declaring bankruptcy had health insurance. As Murphy spoke about health care costs (17 percent of GNP and rising) and how this would stagnate economic growth, about twenty or so people booed or yelled "tort reform!", hoping to disrupt the speech. However, with such a large crowd present, they were ignored.
Next, C.M. Mitchell, Director of Pharmacy at a hospital in Galax, Virginia, spoke. He declared his opposition to the public option but his support for health care reform. He spoke in detail about some provisions in the Senate bill that would reimburse hospitals on quality of care, not procedures. He also talked about how electronic records technology could cut down costs and result in better care.
Finally, Dr. Glenn Hall, an eighty-five year old pediatrician, spoke of his reservations about the public option (to much applause) and his concerns about cuts to Medicare/Medicaid to finance reform. Dr. Hall estimated that if universal health care were enacted, we would need 250,000 additional doctors, although he did not say how he arrived at that figure. Dr. Hall also believed that no bill should pass without tort reform, prompting about 25 percent of the audience to rise to their feet to voice their approval.
Finally, questions were entertained for two hours. Many people spoke about their own problems with health insurance. For instance, parents of a child with Down's Syndrome said they had their wages garnished to pay for medical care. Another man had lost his job and was unable to get any insurance but, surprisingly, was against health care reform. Rep. Boucher answered questions in detail, explaining how a reform bill might help improve some of these difficult situations. He also voiced his support for tort reform.
A few people spoke out against abortion funding in the health care bill (it's not in there) or against the government raising taxes. Others voiced their opposition to socialism, the cap-and-trade bill, and the deficit. Boucher was empathetic. One woman quoted from a bill (citing the page number) that stipulated that businesses with $250,000 in yearly revenue would have to buy insurance for their employees. Boucher was particularly impressive here, informing the woman that the revised bill had upped that number to $500,000 in revenue, thereby sparing almost all small businesses.
All in all, people were mostly courteous, allowing others to speak. The anti health care reform people were boisterous but the loud ones were few. I estimated that the vast majority of the 1200 people there were in support of health care reform, which is why this town hall was not disrupted like others that have been reported in the media. Another reason the meeting was calm relates to Boucher's moderate stance and his ability to answer any question expertly. If anything, the anti-reform people should have been satisfied, while those advocating more comprehensive reform may have been shaking their heads at Boucher's position against the public option.
After the event, I stopped by a convenience store to buy a soda and snack (three hours of town hall can be exhausting!). I stood in front of the candy bars, bewildered by the choices. Finally, the clerk said, "Can't decide?" I gave up and sauntered over to the counter. "I just went to the health care town hall meeting" I said, in order to explain my obvious confusion.
The clerk said she didn't understand what all the fuss was about. "Why are these people so afraid about something that might help them?" she wondered. "I didn't vote for Obama but I know he cannot solve all our problems overnight." She said that people should be more patient with him. As I paid for my soda and walked out, I felt a whole lot better about the day.