Rep. Carol Shea-Porter faces hostile crowd in Alton
|AN AUDIENCE MEMBER asks U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter a question about the health care reform bill during her visit to Alton’s Town Hall on April 1. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)|
April 07, 2010ALTON — An openly hostile crowd greeted U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter at Town Hall last week as she made a promised return to Alton to host a public forum on the healthcare reform bill recently passed by Congress.
With area residents filling every available seat in the room and latecomers crowding onto the stage and spilling out into the hallway, Shea-Porter was met with polite applause and a few scattered boos as she stepped up to the microphone.
Explaining that she did not initially intend to make healthcare reform the focus of her current "town hall" tour throughout the First Congressional District because she did not expect the bill to pass before the tour began, Shea-Porter said she voted in favor of the historic bill because there were a number of provisions included in it that she liked.
First and foremost, she said, she liked the fact that it was designed to help the 32 million Americans who are currently either uninsured or under-insured find adequate coverage.
Provisions of the bill that will prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions or setting benefit caps also appealed to her, she said, as did the idea that the bill will enable more small businesses to offer insurance to their employees by allowing them to join state-run "pools," or insurance exchanges, and receive lower rates.
Young people who often lose insurance coverage because they are unable to find work before being removed from their parents' policies will now be covered under their parents' insurance until the age of 26, she said, adding that those over the age of 26 whose income exceeds the threshold established by the new bill will be fined a certain percentage of their income if they do not enroll in a health insurance plan.
Help will be available, however, for young adults aged 26 or older whose income falls below the threshold, she added.
Forcing more young people to find coverage, she said, will help to drive down costs and make it "fairer" for insurance companies.
Stressing that those who refuse to seek out insurance coverage will not face criminal penalties, only fines, she noted that small businesses with less than 50 employees will not be required under the bill to offer health insurance.
The bill, Shea-Porter said, also includes help for senior citizens, such as increased coverage for preventive care and measures aimed at closing the Medicare "doughnut hole" by giving qualifying seniors access to brand-name medications at a 50 percent discount.
More help will also be made available under the provisions of the bill, she said, for children with pre-existing conditions, whose families will no longer be denied coverage on the basis of their ailments.
Young people trying to put themselves through medical school will receive financial assistance with their education, she said, while primary care providers and Medicaid will receive higher re-imbursement rates.
In an effort to prevent the forum from turning into a free-for-all, Shea-Porter's staff handed out numbered tickets to audience members wishing to speak, and asked Selectman Pat Fuller to draw numbers at random from a jar.
The first number drawn belonged to a woman seated on the stage, who asked Shea-Porter whether she had statistics in her possession reflecting how her constituents felt about the bill prior to its passage.
"Yes, yes, yes," Shea-Porter replied, to skeptical groans from the audience.
Commenting that voters in her district were "deeply divided" on the issue of healthcare reform, she explained that her office was flooded with letters, phone calls, and e-mails in the days leading up to the vote.
"There were plenty of people who said 'yes' and plenty of people who said 'no,'" she said, adding that she sensed a "core support" for the bill among her constituency.
"There was tremendous support from the medical profession," she added to a burst of laughter from audience members.
Explaining that every Congressional representative's office keeps detailed records of every comment received from the public in support or opposition to a bill, Shea-Porter said the representatives themselves are shown a sampling of the letters and e-mails they receive.
"What's the number?" an audience member asked.
"Tell us the number!" another called out.
"We never release the numbers for anything," Shea-Porter replied, met again with groans, laughter, and murmurs of disbelief from the audience.
"Transparency!" a man shouted from the back of the room.
Shea-Porter said that after visiting several communities in her district after the vote, she found that there were some towns that wanted healthcare reform, and some that didn't.
"What towns were those [that wanted it]?" an audience member asked.
Pointing out that she had won election as a Congressional representative twice with healthcare reform as a major plank in her campaign platform (a comment that was met once again with skeptical groans), Shea-Porter said she respected the fact that there was a difference of opinion on the issue among her constituents, but disagreed with the opposing viewpoint.
An elderly gentleman whose number was drawn said that although he and his wife had always held Shea-Porter in high regard, they were "very disappointed" in her vote on the healthcare bill.
Commenting that the strategy among Democrats in Congress seemed to him to be "win at any cost," he said he had found the rhetoric on both sides "terrible," and suggested that if Congress tried to keep the value of "getting along" in mind more often, "we'd end up with better legislation."
With several audience members voicing their agreement, the gentleman went on to suggest that Congress spend more time on job creation and ending what he saw as unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think we should spend less time on re-election … and more energy on creating good legislation," he said to a burst of applause from the audience.
Shea-Porter said she was horrified by the behavior of her fellow Congressmen, as well, calling it "disgraceful."
Assuring the audience that the healthcare bill was not rushed into law, she explained that the Congressional Education and Labor committees spent the past year working on it, and noted that much of the wording in the final document came about as the result of concessions made to satisfy Republicans who opposed the bill in its original form.
"It wasn't a bi-partisan vote, but it was a bi-partisan bill," she said (met again with groans of disbelief from the audience).
Re-iterating her belief that the debate over the bill "shouldn't have gotten as nasty and personal" as it did, Shea-Porter noted that, "everyone who voted 'Yes' already had insurance."
"They didn't do it to win, and they didn't do it for themselves," she said.
"We're a little more aware of our constituents than you might think," she said, reading from a list of leading medical organizations (including the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Medical Association, the Alzheimer's Foundation, and the American Association of Pediatricians) that supported the bill.
"The list goes on and on," she said amid a rising chorus of laughter and derisive comments from the audience. "They know something here."
Alton resident Jim Fontaine, who co-owns a small business with his wife, questioned how the state-run exchanges for small businesses would work.
Commenting that there is "very little competition" in New Hampshire now in terms of large-scale insurance companies, Fontaine voiced doubts about how effective a state-operated "pool" would be at saving small businesses money.
Assuring Fontaine and the audience that insurance companies would jump at the opportunity to enroll 32 million more people, particularly in view of the federal subsidies that will become available under the new bill, Shea-Porter commented that insurance companies were against the idea of a federally-run public option, which was ultimately removed from the bill.
"They were not against this," she added.
Pointing out what he viewed as the failure of several government entities over the past few years, including the Post Office and Social Security, Tim Cameron asked what reason the federal government had to believe that it could effectively manage healthcare reform.
"What magic pill do they have that makes them think they run healthcare?" he asked to a burst of applause.
"First of all, we're under different management now," Shea-Porter replied to an eruption of derisive laughter from the audience.
During George W. Bush's administration, she said (to another chorus of groans), "the numbers show that we went from a surplus to a deficit."
The full extent of the problem was obscured, she added, by the fact that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the administrative costs associated with Medicare Part D were not included in the federal budget during Bush's time in office.
Those expenses have now been added into the budget, which is why the deficit appears larger today than it did before current President Barack Obama took office, she said.
Turning to the financial troubles facing Social Security, Shea-Porter said the root of the problem is the fact that employee contributions are capped at the same percentage across the board.
It is not fair for someone making $250,000 a year to pay the same percentage of their income into the system as someone making only $30,000 a year, she said, adding that in her opinion, those with higher incomes should pay a higher percentage.
Assuring the audience that the healthcare bill has already been "fully paid for" and will help to drive down the deficit (a comment that drew another burst of skeptical laughter), Shea-Porter said the Congressional Budget Office had worked "to produce numbers [Congress] could agree with."
While some of its programs have not worked out as well as planned, she said, the federal government has done some things right, such as the military (which she called "the best in the world.")
"And we'd like to keep it that way," a gentleman commented from the audience.
Describing Medicare as another federal success story, Shea-Porter noted that while most private insurance companies funnel 37 percent of their earnings into overhead expenses, Medicare has kept its overhead down to roughly five percent.
While the majority of those present at last week's forum were opposed to the healthcare bill, some audience members voiced their support for the new legislation.
Wolfeboro resident Barbara Laverick and Alton resident Bob Longabaugh thanked Shea-Porter for voting in favor of the bill, and were met with applause from supporters in the audience, while another woman said she appreciated the provisions that had been incorporated into the bill to help ease the burden of loans for medical students.
Shifting to a different topic, Barnstead resident Alan Glassman voiced his concerns about earmarks attached to Congressional bills, which he said look "wonderful" on the surface, but turn out, in most cases, to be a waste of money.
"When are we going to get rid of this ridiculous system?" he asked.
Shea-Porter said she supports the idea of earmarks "as long as they're responsible."
Suggesting that if New Hampshire's Congressional representatives don't fight to make sure that federal tax dollars come back to the state, the faceless bureaucrats in Washington's back rooms will work to funnel the money toward their own pet projects, she assured the audience that every earmark she supports is posted on her Web site, along with an explanation of how it will benefit New Hampshire and a disclaimer stating that neither she nor her family will benefit from it financially.
Commenting that no work would have been done on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard over the past 39 years had it not been for Congressional earmarks, she said that for her, it became an issue of national security and job security for workers at the shipyard.
"We know what this area needs," she said, adding that she was "not proud of everybody down [in Washington]," and felt that someone needed to stay vigilant to ensure that tax dollars are being used appropriately.
Returning to the issue of healthcare, Chris Whitman said she considered the reform bill to "less about healthcare, and more about control."
"This is still America — with a 'c,' and not a 'k,'" Whitman said, calling the provisions of the reform bill "unconstitutional" and stating that her father, a WWII veteran who passed away recently, would have been ashamed to see what she described as the erosion of the freedoms he fought to protect.
"I'm glad my father is not alive to see what is happening to this country," she said.
Commenting (to another outburst of skeptical comments and groans from the audience) that a USA Today poll conducted shortly after the final vote on the reform bill showed that 49 percent of the American public supported it, while 11 percent were undecided, Shea-Porter assured Whitman and the remaining audience members that they would be able to keep their current insurance plans, and that the government was not seizing control of their healthcare.
"For the first time, you'll have a place to go for insurance if you lose it," she said.
With Whitman responding that she was capable of taking care of herself, Shea-Porter suggested that, "you can't take care of yourself if no one will sell you insurance."
Editor's note: Shea-Porter's April 1 forum in Alton can currently be seen in its entirety on LRPA-TV's Channel 26. Check Channel 24 at the top of each hour for listings.
Copies of the forum are also available on both VHS and DVD at the Gilman Library.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org