Health care reform battle turns ugly

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By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The temperature of the national health care debate has risen to unhealthy levels, some Democrats are saying, prompting a sharp change in plans for the congressional recess.

Attempting to deflate what Democrats are calling “generated outrage” over plans to overhaul the U.S. health care system, most North Carolina members of Congress are not hosting town hall meetings this month. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield is the state’s only Democratic congressman so far to announce plans to hold a public meeting.

The community forums have been a staple of the legislative work break, offering constituents face time with lawmakers who usually toil at offices in Washington. In recent weeks, though, some lawmakers nationwide have been embarrassed by angry protesters disrupting community meetings by shouting and chanting against President Barack Obama’s proposal to reform health care

Recent health care forums in Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis escalated beyond shouting, as opponents violently clashed with event organizers, resulting in several arrests. Videos of the outbreaks have become Internet sensations and fodder for cable news networks.

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-13th District, said this week he would meet with constituents one-on-one in lieu of any town hall gathering. The announcement came after Miller’s office received several harassing phone calls and at least one death threat over his support for health care reform.

Pushing back against the protests, Democrats have accused Republicans of sanctioning “mob tactics,” and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused protesters of trying to sabotage the democratic process.

A memo circulated this month by a member of the conservative group FreedomWorks offered a three-point strategy for disrupting town hall forums, suggesting group members attempt to “rattle” lawmakers by spreading out in the crowd and shouting.

George Killsby rejected the idea that anger over health care reform has been fabricated. Killsby said he and a group of his neighbors plan to picket outside congressional offices on Aug. 22 as part of a nationwide rally promoted by the American Liberty Alliance, the same national group that organized anti-tax tea parties in April.

“Obama and these liberals think the American people are going to just sit here and take this tyranny, but they’re wrong,” said Killsby, asserting his belief that Democratic reform proposals would cost trillions of dollars and, ultimately, millions of lives. “We’re mad as all get out and not going to take it anymore. I’m ready to fight this to the death.”

Republicans have countered the Democrats’ accusations, pointing to recent polls reporting fewer and fewer voters supporting the president’s plan to reel in medical costs and guarantee health insurance for all Americans. During a recent trip to Raleigh, Obama pledged to enact reforms by the end of this year.

An estimated 1.8 million North Carolina residents — roughly 21 percent of the population — have no health insurance, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Among those who are covered, premiums increased 75 percent from 2000 to 2007.

Much of the more heated debate over health care reform has centered on whether or not the government should offer a tax-subsidized public option to compete with private insurers and to ensure everyone is covered. Many opponents of the plan support free-market health care instead of what they fear would be too much government involvement in the industry.

Despite Obama’s efforts to calm fears of a sweeping government take over of health care, the debate has at times boiled over into an all-out shouting match.

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge’s decision not to hold a town-hall meeting during the recess wasn’t based on avoiding angry protesters, his press secretary Don Owens said. Oftentimes in the past, Owens said, even during mild political seasons, single voices tend to dominate community meetings.

Etheridge, D-2nd District, said he hopes to talk with more people directly by scheduling one-on-one meetings in his office and over the phone.

“Naturally, the threat against Congressman Miller and much of this heated rhetoric concerns Congressman Etheridge and our office,” Owens said. “But also, I think, the congressman understands that open-minded discussion and tolerance for others’ ideas are a foundation for Southern living. We want to hear from everybody, but obviously there is no room for threats from either side in this debate.”

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District, announced plans Friday to hold a town hall meeting this week in Rocky Mount, a day after his aides said the congressman would hold no such forum. Butterfield visited several community clinics last week and also plans to host a district-wide conference call later this month.

“It is clear that people want their opinions heard,” Butterfield said. “I want to help people to understand why these changes are needed and exactly how they would benefit.”

Meanwhile, the White House has begun counseling legislators on how to cope with disruptions at public events and has launched a campaign to clear up false information about what Obama has begun calling “health insurance reform.”

Mass e-mails have circulated through the Internet in recent weeks warning readers that “Obamacare” would seek to euthanize the elderly, block people from choosing providers and create government organizations to ration care, among other statements. The Obama administration, hoping to block myths from gaining traction, has begun asking supporters to report when false information is being disseminated, leading to further backlash from Republican leaders who accuse the president of forming an unconstitutional list of political enemies.

Mary Lou Francis, a Rocky Mount resident, said she’s disgusted by the tone of the debate.

“That’s the problem with this country,” Francis said. “We’re not even talking about health care reform anymore. We’re arguing over who said what and who staged what protest and who is lying and who isn’t. Meantime, medical costs are going up and up, and people are suffering without insurance, and the Democrats are playing right into the game.

“I’ll be surprised if they pass health care reform at all, at this point.”

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