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Residents grill Shea-Porter on healthcare bill

U.S. REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER (second from right) and members of her staff chat with Alton Selectman Peter Bolster (far left) and Executive Councilor Ray Burton (far right) before a meeting at Alton's Town Hall on Nov. 13. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
November 18, 2009
ALTON — What had originally been planned as a discussion of local infrastructure issues quickly turned into a referendum on healthcare reform, as Alton residents took U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter to task for her support of the healthcare bill recently passed by the House during her Nov. 13 meeting with the board of selectmen.

Announcing at the start of the meeting that Shea-Porter had come to Alton Friday morning to talk about local issues, and had agreed to return at a later date for a town hall forum on healthcare, Selectman Peter Bolster asked for her help in getting some of the federal funds currently earmarked for the Alton Traffic Circle re-allocated to the 11-mile stretch of Route 28 between Alton and Barnstead, where he said the money is most needed.

Selectman Dave Hussey asked why the U.S. government seemed to be "trying to build a house from the top down" by offering financial bail-outs to banks and auto-makers, rather than focusing on improvements to the nation's infrastructure (particularly the national grid, which he felt was in "bad shape"), and on job creation.

"We're just printing [money], and we're not building anything," he said.

"I've said that throughout the process," Shea-Porter replied, adding that she voted against both bail-out bills when they were brought to the House, and still thought they were the wrong way to go about re-building the economy.

Citing the example of Dover officials in the 1880s, who had the foresight to build a municipal water system for future generations, she agreed that Congress should have put more resources into job creation programs and infrastructure improvements.

There are, however, 434 other people in the House with 434 different opinions, she said, describing Congress as "the most dysfunctional family I've ever belonged to."

Turning the discussion to HR3200 (the healthcare reform bill currently undergoing review by the Senate), resident Don Roques asked Shea-Porter how she proposed to help New Hampshire by supporting a bill that would burden the state with unfunded Medicaid mandates.

Roques also asked for her opinion on House Rule 45, which he said he had interpreted as a measure to disarm American citizens.

Shea-Porter said she knew of no legislation aimed at disarming U.S. citizens, and assured Roques that she would never support a proposal that violated the Second Amendment.

Providing an overview of the healthcare reform bill for the benefit of the audience, Shea-Porter said the basic concept behind it was to ask insurance companies to write what they offer on a piece of paper, and place it in a bowl, along with information on the plans offered by their competitors and by the government.

Those who do not have access to health insurance because they are out of work, have been denied coverage, or because their employers can't afford it, she said, will be able to examine all the options available and choose whether they want the public option, or a private insurance plan.

The intent of the bill, she said, is to provide the 47 million Americans who are currently uninsured with coverage "so you don't get stuck with the bill" when they need medical services.

Explaining how the increased Medicaid costs would be paid for under the provisions of the bill, Shea-Porter said the federal government would cover 91 percent of the increase, with individual states paying the remaining nine percent.

Noting that large corporations like Wal-Mart would save an estimated $3,000 per employee each year under the reform bill, enabling them to create more jobs, she said the bill would also cut down on the amount of fraud and waste within the current system by imposing a cap of 15 percent on administrative costs for private insurance companies (whose administrative expenses, she said, currently run at an average of 37 percent).

Citing the example of her own mother-in-law, who was resuscitated against the wishes stated in her living will simply because the family did not have the will in its possession at the time of her death, Shea-Porter said the reform bill would also include provisions placing the decision to resuscitate in the hands of family members, rather than paramedics.

"All the different cost containments together will drive costs down," she added.

Referencing recent outbreaks of the H1N1 flu virus, she asked Roques whether he would want to see his granddaughter sitting in the classroom next to an uninsured child who might not have access to proper diagnosis and treatment if they came down with the flu.

Resident Barbara Howard said she felt that the American public had been lied to repeatedly since President Barack Obama took office, and therefore had "no reason to believe you or the government on health care."

Pointing out that regardless of how much the federal government pays toward the increase in Medicaid, "it's all coming from us [taxpayers]," Howard noted that the state of Hawaii had nearly bankrupted itself in an effort to provide a government-run health care program.

If those who supported the bill truly intend to purge the system of fraud and corruption, she said, then efforts should be made to shut down welfare and other public assistance programs that have fallen victim to rampant abuse, and to deport illegal aliens that receive government assistance.

As someone who was recently laid off, and who had to significantly alter her lifestyle in order to retain an insurance plan that she could only make affordable by increasing her deductible to $10,000, Howard said she took great exception to the idea of federal tax dollars being used to provide insurance for people who could easily afford it, but choose to spend their money on luxury items such as new vehicles and flat-screen televisions instead.

From her perspective, she said, the reform bill as written would de-value the elderly, veterans, and the disabled, and is unconstitutional and immoral.

After discussing the bill with a number of fellow residents, she said she hadn't heard any positive feedback whatsoever.

Accusing Shea-Porter of living "in a cocoon," and acting with reckless disregard for the ramifications of her vote because she is covered under the Congressional insurance plan and won't be affected by them, Howard said she felt that the people had not been given a voice.

"Enough is enough," she said. "We need to be heard ... we need true reform."

"What you've said, I have certainly heard," Shea-Porter replied, explaining that she is currently on her husband's insurance policy, and does not take part in the Congressional plan.

Suggesting that the public option outlined within the reform bill might benefit people like Howard, who lose their jobs and are forced to choose between going without insurance or paying unfairly expensive premiums, Shea-Porter said that although there are those who are uninsured because they made bad financial decisions, "there are other reasons why people don't have insurance."

Addressing Howard's concerns about the de-valuing of the elderly, she explained that the bill would, in fact, benefit senior citizens by giving them greater access to preventive care.

Those who have insurance will be able to keep whatever policy they have through their employer, she said, explaining that the reform bill would give small businesses who can't afford high premiums and individuals who have been denied coverage a chance to obtain insurance.

"You can't have one system for the very wealthy, and one system for the rest of us," she said, adding that the reform bill was brought forward as a way to level the playing field.

Suggesting that the bill would, in fact, create the kind of two-tiered system that Shea-Porter voiced her opposition to, Earl Leighton said his construction company, which currently uses Blue Cross/Blue Shield as an insurance provider, would have to pay an additional $6,000 a year in premiums under the provisions of the reform bill.

"I think you're going to be very happy," Shea-Porter replied, explaining that the cost increases associated with the bill would be paid for, in part, by rolling back tax breaks for individuals earning more than $500,000 a year and couples with combined incomes of more than $1 million a year.

Leighton, however, objected to the idea of penalizing one segment of the population to pay for a bill that is supposed to benefit the country as a whole.

"I don't want to punish the wealthy," he said. "I want to be there someday."

While he believed health care reform was badly needed, resident Joe McCormack said he had doubts about the current reform bill.

In any competition between the government and the private sector, "the government's going to win," he said, voicing his concern that the bill would initially result in the creation of a government-run health care system similar to those in Canada and many European countries, where care is rationed, resulting in waiting lists for services that are sometimes several months long.

"What's the rationale for rationing?" he asked, adding that as a Medicare recipient, he was worried that if he found himself in need of hip surgery in the future, he might not be able to receive immediate care, and would end up in a wheel chair.

McCormack also raised doubts about the government's ability to combat fraud, noting that the rate of fraud within the U.S. government is currently at 20 percent, as opposed to three percent among private insurance companies.

Assuring McCormack that he would be able to keep Medicare if he liked the level of service it provides, Shea-Porter urged the remaining audience members to visit the Web site for the U.S. House of Representatives and read the summary of the bill itself, and not to believe the "misconceptions" that have been going around about it.

"Everybody's going to compete," she said, explaining that a government-run plan would be only one of many options available to the public.

Describing the reform bill as a solid "American solution" to the rising cost of health care, she re-iterated that administrative costs for both private insurance companies and the government plan alike would be capped at 15 percent under its provisions, and that people would no longer be denied coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions.

Calling the bill "good for seniors," she pointed out (to skeptical groans and chuckles from the audience) that it had been endorsed by the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Stating her belief that cutting down on the amount of waste and fraud within the current system would be enough to drive costs down, Shea-Porter said that although she had issues with the bill, she felt it provided very explicit, well-thought-out information.

In an effort to ease doubts about the government's ability to efficiently handle health care, she commented that "there are some things the government does very well," citing the U.S. military (which she described as the greatest in the world) as an example.

Explaining that she did not want people to leave the meeting with the impression that all government officials were bought and paid for by special interests, Shea-Porter assured the audience that "there are public servants in Washington" who have resisted the "unbelievable" pressure from lobbysists.

While the system is far from perfect, she said, "the key is to get in the trenches, and keep working away to make it a more perfect union."

"This [bill] is much better than you think," she said.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Town of Alexandria
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