In a Town Hall Meeting, Healthcare Swing-Vote Representative Baron Hill [D-IN] Takes a Clear Stand on Reform

10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Representative Baron Hill [D-IN] at his August 31, 2009 town hall meeting in New Albany, Indiana, said to the crowd, "I would rather go to the dentist than be here."

"At least he's telling the truth on that score," muttered a man in the meeting.

Indiana, a rectangular state stretching from the Ohio River to the Great Lakes, is surrounded by Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. The people of Indiana, called "Hoosiers," voted for Barack Obama [D] for president in 2008 by a razor-thin margin. Reflecting that partisan split and a practical Midwestern attitude, the demonstrators who lined the front walk waved competing signs that read, "No 'Socialized Medicine' AKA Obamacare" " Yes to the Public Option," "True Health Reform Starts with Tort Reform," "Yes to Single Payer" and "How About a Czar of Common Sense?"

Hill was one of the "Blue Dog" Democrats who had delayed passage of the American Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 [H.R. 3200], the main bill pending in the U.S. Congress, thus becoming a crucial swing vote. People with hard questions about either him or the five health care reform bills were out in force. There wore no AK-47s and strapped-down handguns as seen outside town meetings in the far west, yet anger simmered and spit. Citizens called out to Hill, "Will you vote the way that we would on health care reform?" threatening not to re-elect Hill if he did not.

Hill could not represent a southern Indiana consensus view, because there was none; whatever he chose to do, it would cost him votes. Some people wanted no change, some wanted better-regulated private health insurance with rule-making left to the States, or federal tax rebates for employers providing health care, or federally-regulated private insurance with a public option or full public "single payer." He silenced any would-be hecklers by saying "Let me answer that before you interrupt, please!" "Respect her! She has a right to express her opinion!" and "I would prefer that we not turn this into the Jerry Springer Show!" as citizens stepped up to the mikes or responded to the questioners and then to Hill's answers by murmuring, chuckling, hissing or applauding.

Thanks to a clear cool evening, when the crowd overflowed the hall in Indiana University Southeast [IUS], people could spread outside onto the back patio and watch through a green glass wall, near a loudspeaker and extra microphone. Cost was one of two main concerns. It was clear to most there that the U.S. government had four main ways of funding massive reform: raising taxes, bringing greater efficiency in programs and shifting money from unneeded ones, borrowing from (by selling U.S. Treasury bonds to) nations like China, or "watching the Federal Reserve--which is not a government agency--print money."Other nations had not demanded repayment of the staggering U.S. debt yet but creditors could pull the rug out from under the U.S., which as recently as the 1970s had owed no one

Marvin Comstock, a retired Jeffersonville police officer, growled, "The U.S. is broke. If I write a check out of my checkbook that I can't cover, they're gonna' arrest me for fraud. How does the government keep spending money?"

Standing on the demonstration line with his wife and small children, a man identifying himself only as "Travis" said, "Here are my three boys, who as future citizens already have unfunded liabilities of $1.3 million! I'm 39 years old, heading a family business. We pay for our employees' insurance. It's a huge expenditure but we feel it's the moral thing to do. I do not oppose public health care but how are they going to pay for it when they've already run up a $1.5 trillion deficit? If I did business that way, I could not keep my doors open! The only way to pay for that has got to be to tax me more or to borrow more in my children's names."

The greater concern was staying alive. Folks spoke of medical bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars, of bankruptcy, decades of suffering with chronic illness, or family deaths because private insurers had canceled policies or rejected legitimate claims. Most people without insurance had jobs--had they been completely busted, they would have been eligible for Medicaid.

Those old enough to remember vastly lower costs were often appalled though that anyone needed help in paying health care bills. His face red and contorted, a weatherbeaten man who refused to give his name roared, "Decades back, on just $4.25 an hour I managed to pay a hospital and doctors for medical care for a collapsed lung, took me years but I did it, so why can't everybody else? I hate socialism! Why do I have to pay other people's bills for them? I say, 'Get a damned job!'"

Dusty O'Brien, with advanced cancer, retorted, "They say, 'Get out and work for it.' I've been working since I was fourteen years old! I plan on living to retirement regardless of what the doctor tell me but when I reach it, I won't be 65 yet; and even with this cancer, won't have Medicare. Everybody ought to have health care, regardless of age."

"Where were alll of you people who are worried about cost: when we got into this war that we didn't need to be in?" a voice interjected. Another called out, "We're spending three thousand dollars a second for a mistake in Iraq!" Another: "What about the trillions being given to bad banks? Shouldn't money go instead to the people? We're workers, taxpayers in the richest country on earth! Why should we die from lack of medical care?"

Many wondered if Representative Hill understood the other costs of NOT reforming the U.S. health care system fast.

"I am holding in my hand a school system check written to my mother, a check for seventeen cents--that was her net income after the insurance costs were subtracted! Private insurance companies are breaking the school system...and U.S. business...and families," said Mark Megenity of English, IN, a tanned man in a bright green shirt, as he explained that he had spent 30 years as a teacher, was past president of the county teacher's association, a past negotiator for the school system with private insurance companies, and in retirement was a small business owner. He elaborated privately: "The health insurance subtraction from teacher and pension paychecks grows greater each year, so their net pay is dwindling. New small businesses, which are the main U.S. job creator, can't compete for workers with established companies offering health insurance, and often go under before they can create new jobs. U.S. business in general cannot compete fairly against other developed nations, which furnish national health care so business can get on its feet."

As it stood, people pointed out, private insurance ate over 20% in administrative fees, as compared to 3% for government programs like Medicare. Increasing numbers of U.S. voters therefore wanted to corral "the greedy middle men", to let each citizen choose to enter either a private insurance plan like Aetna or a pubic insurance program similar to that which Congress was already giving itself. That was the "public option" in the main reform bill, H.R. 3200.

Some people screamed "socialism," though public roads are socialism, something all can access and all pay for. Butch Ragland, a Jeffersonville retiree, said "Emotions trump reason, are terrible advisers for behavior. Some fear the word 'socialism' without considering what it means. An emergency 911 [telephone] line is socialism and it saved my life. Don't get lost in labels. Think this through."

Nancy Tierney who had recently moved to New Albany said, "The providers [doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospitals] should get all our health care money, not those pencil pushers at the top of the private insurance companies who are profiting from our being sick. We need to transfer our health care dllars to them with as little overhead as possible."

A "Single Payer bill" [H.R. 676] had also been gathering momentum in Congress before the August recess. A federal health-care purchasing pool, Single Payer was full socialized health insurance, replacing private insurers while leaving individuals the freedom of choosing their doctors and hospital providers. According to Physicians for a National Health Program [PNHP], "there are literally tens of thousands of different" private organizations--HMOs, billing agencies, various insurance corporations. "By having so many different payers of health care fees, there is an enormous amount of administrative waste generated in the system." In a single-payer system, the government collects insurance fees and then health care providers like doctors and hospitals bill it for their services. Single payer "reduces administrative waste greatly, and saves money, which can be used to provide care and insurance to those who currently don't have it."

Yet where did Hill stand? There was little hint for example on his website.

When "single payer" or "public option" was entered in the search box , it brought up no reference more recent than 2004. Constituents whispered that on Hill's website. Under Issues, he stated that health care was a right. Yet he said little about how to provide it. When the site was searched for "health care bill," it accessed Thomas, a U.S. government database that coughed up only old health care bills. Even when the accurate number of the main 2009 reform bill, H.R. 3200, was entered, Hill's site--or Thomas-- wrongly identified it as a proposal "to expand the travel and transportation allowances available to members of the Armed Forces granted leave...." The full pattern of Hill's thinking therefore only gradually emerged in the course of the town meeting.

First giving a brief speech, Hill then answering a barrage of questions that did not stop when the meeting ended. Hill---whose website showed the national debt climbing faster than an electric meter whirls--had helped slow H.R. 3200 while calling for more government savings or income to balance the spending. He described health coverage however as each citizen's right and stated that federal reform must be immediate because both inefficient health care and the soaring insurance costs were a major factor breaking the already teetering U.S. economy.

"We've been debating this for 60 years, leaving it to the individual states and the private sector and they did not get it done. The federal government must act....The current system is broken. Heath care cost is just swallowing everything up." While Representative Hill did not take a position on the "single payer" bill, H.R. 676, he did say that he would "like to support the public option" on H.R. 3200, to give each citizen a choice between private and public heath care. Unlike Democratic progressives who were holding firm for a public option, Hill however would "not insist on it."

Effective health care reform he said should bring the insurance and out-of-pocket cost to individual families tumbling, making health care available, affordable and predictable, but there was a trade-off. Doing it partly by raising taxes Hill said was "probably unavoidable."

"At least," the muttering man in the crowd said, "he's telling the truth on that score."

>>>>This article is part of Huffington Post's Eyes and Ears reporting on town hall meetings across the country.<<<<