09/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Town Meetings

For much of America, the all-American values depicted in Norman Rockwell's classic illustrations are idealistic. For those of us from Vermont, they're realistic. That's what we do. When Norman Rockwell lived and worked in Vermont, the people he painted were from here. That town meeting depicted in the painting called "Freedom of Speech," it took place in Arlington, Vt., where, as it happens, I will be hosting a town meeting on Saturday in a public park.

I don't recognize the raucous and rowdy town meetings in other parts of the country that have grabbed big headlines this month. Those shouters and screamers talk about "freedom," but what they are doing is trying to disrupt meetings. That's the absolute opposite of what freedom of discussion is about. They are trying to shout down speakers and shut down town meetings because they are afraid to debate the real issues and the unprecedented set of problems our country now faces.

In terms of health care, they are afraid to debate the fact that we have a disintegrating health care system with soaring costs, that we have tens of millions uninsured and underinsured, the fact that over 18,000 Americans die every year because they don't get to a doctor on time, or the reality that some 1 million Americans will go bankrupt this year because of medically-related bills. These people are screaming and yelling so we can't have a real discussion of the real health care crisis.

If what you want is a real debate, let's have it. Let's ask why countries around the world have better health care outcomes than we do at half the cost. Let's ask why we are the only nation in the industrialized world that does not have a national health care program guaranteeing health care for all of their people. Let's ask why some 60 million Americans, including many with health insurance, do not have access to a physician on a regular basis. Let's ask why private insurance companies, which pay their CEOs outrageous compensation packages, deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions or refuse to extend their policies when they need it most. Those are the kinds of questions that we ought to be discussing.

There's a back story to the town meeting protests. The health care industry in America is doing everything it can to stop reform. Incredibly, it has spent $130 million just in the last quarter trying to influence Congress. The Washington Post has reported that $1.4 million a day is being spent by well-paid lobbyists to do everything they can do to stop health care reform. There is a reason for that intense opposition. Private insurance companies in America are reaping huge profits. Drug companies in America are charging the American people, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Of course, they don't want health care reform. Of course, they'll do everything to try to stop us.

I look forward to discussing those issues at town meetings in Vermont this month and, when I return to Washington after the August break, with Americans across the country.

I have had hundreds of town meetings in every corner of the state since I was elected to Congress in 1990 and the Senate in 2006. I do them because I like them and because they are what an elected official should be doing. I want to hear what's on peoples' minds, and I want to inform them of what my office is doing to address the very serious set of problems currently facing our country, problems that go beyond the health care crisis.

As Americans, we need a serious discussion about the collapse of the middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else. We need to find a way to address the incredible greed on Wall Street while, at the same time, our manufacturing base is collapsing. We need to determine how we can create millions of good-paying green jobs as we address the terrible threats of global warming.

Shouting down and intimidating someone from speaking their mind is not exactly a Vermont town meeting value, nor should it be an American town meeting value. It simply suggests fear of ideas that you may not be familiar with or disagree with. Unlike some other places around the country, I am confident that in Vermont people will be respectful of differing points of view. I hope we can be a good example for rest of the country.

UPDATE: Senator Sanders held two town meetings in Vermont on Saturday. Both showed a strong turnout and civil discourse. Watch the video here.

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