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The New Town Hall Reality: Why Did Congressman Baron Hill (D-IN) Blow Up?

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Tall, tanned, white-haired, U.S. Congressional Representative Baron Hill (D-IN) at his August 31, 2009 town hall meeting at Indiana University Southeast (IUS), New Albany, 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 back.

Thanks to the clear cool evening, when the crowd overflowed the hall in New Albany, it could spread outside onto the back patio where people watched Hill through a green glass wall, near a loudspeaker and extra microphone. No AK-47s and strapped-down handguns, as had been seen outside some town meetings farther west, were in the Indiana meeting. People were polite and even relaxed enough to chuckle whenever someone spoke with dry Indiana wit. Yet Hill silenced 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 as the crowd responded to the questioners and then to Hill's answers by murmuring, laughing, quietly hissing or applauding.

Their anger and anguish simmered and spit. So apparently did his.

Four days later, at a meeting in Indiana University Bloomington (IUB), farther north in Indiana, Hill grabbed headlines by erupting at a young student journalist -- there to talk about the recent death of her mother and her own commitment to health care reform. Congress was soon buzzing with it. Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) from across the river in Louisville, Kentucky recounted, "Baron Hill may have lost his job that night. He had a town hall in Bloomington and apparently banned recorders. When a 17-year-old girl asked why, he kind of went ballistic on her and said 'I set the rules and no one tells me how to run my office!'"

It also hit cable and YouTube.

There are clues in the first, New Albany, town hall meeting about what went wrong later in Bloomington. It is a snapshot of a deeply aroused nation, watching its representatives like hawks now, of a vibrant democracy returning and of representatives who are perhaps not used to constituents demanding transparency, records and accountability.

Democrat Hill is a conservative from a conservative area. (By no means all Democrats are progressives.) Elected to Congress before, an old hand, the returning Hill had swiftly hooked up with the Blue Dog Coalition, 52 Democrats who are a factor delaying for example passage of the American Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 (H.R. 3200), thus becoming a crucial swing vote on epochal legislation. Hill -- whose website accurately shows the national debt spinning as fast as an electric meter whirls, though the site's numbers are arguably misleading -- has called for cutbacks or more government savings or income to balance the spending. His constituents do not agree about what stance he should take next.

Indeed many said they were not sure where he stood. Constituents at the New Albany town hall whispered that on Hill's government website under Issues, he stated that health care was a right, but said little about how to provide it, let alone cost-effectively. When searched for "health care bill," the site accessed Thomas, a U.S. government database that coughed up only old health care bills. When "single payer" or "public option" was entered in the search box, it brought up no reference more recent than 2004. 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...."

They wanted firm statements on contentious issues. Indiana, a long 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 Obama by a razor-thin margin. Reflecting that partisan split and a practical Midwestern attitude, the demonstrators who lined the front walk of the New Albany town meeting 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 could not represent an Indiana consensus view, because there was none; whatever he chose to do, it would cost him votes. Some 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." 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 do so. The usual unfounded rumors were floating but it was clear moreover that many people were doing their homework. Quite a few referenced H.R. 3200, the 1000-page bill main health care bill, by section and clause, and they wanted firm explanations from him.

Cost was one of the people's two main concerns. 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."

Nancy Tierney who had recently moved to New Albany, looked at costs and came to a different conclusion. "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 dollars to them with as little overhead as possible."

The greater concern for many 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 though were often appalled that anyone needed help in paying health care bills at all. His face red and contorted, a weather-beaten 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."

"Where were all 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.

"The health insurance subtraction from teacher and pension paychecks grows greater each year, so their net pay is dwindling." Megenity elaborated privately: "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, 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," but public roads are socialism, something everyone can access and taxpayers fund....

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."

A "Single Payer bill" (H.R. 676) had gathered some momentum in Congress before the August recess. A federal health-care purchasing pool, Single Payer was socialized health insurance, not socialized medicine, replacing private insurers while leaving individuals the freedom of choosing their doctors and hospital providers. According to Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) http://www.pnhp.org/facts/what_is_single_payer.php, "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."

First giving a brief speech, Hill had then answered a barrage of questions that did not stop when the meeting ended. Crowding around him, the people wanted him on record, in detail.

Answering them in bits and pieces both in the meeting and after it, Hill described health coverage 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 insurance, with both plans dependent on private providers, leaving people free to choose. Unlike Democratic progressives who were holding firm for a public option, conservative 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."

Perhaps Hill's blow-up has wrecked his chances, perhaps not, but it raises interesting questions. How will representatives accustomed to a less alive electorate weather the storm? If Blue Dog Democrat Hill has little time left as congressman, will that corner him or free him to act? Do term limits work?

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