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Healthcare Townhalls

Today I decided to exercise my Constitutional rights and go to a healthcare town hall meeting held in Albuquerque. It was hosted by our very own Representative Heinreich, who is fairly new (voted President of Freshman Class of 2007). With Heinreich were the head of the Emergency Medicine department at UNM, which includes (or included) managing the emergency room at UNM hospital, which is one of the best in the state, and a family practice doctor who also organizes free clinics, and lastly, a token Republican, who seemed to be president of a organization of republicans. So, two politicians and two medical workers. I liked the mix and found that they talked about almost entirely different issues. Or rather, the politicians had sound bytes and party-lines, and the doctors had statistics, practical information and useful input. It was, on the whole, a fascinating experience, and now I'm feeling prepared to weigh in on the issues.

Which is not to say I've read the bill, the polls, the local papers, or the rest. Hell, I haven't even read a lot of Obama's speeches on the issue. So I'm about as informed as most Americans

I waited in line for about 75 minutes, which ensured me a seat, decent parking, and plenty of time to watch and listen to everyone else. I had brought ray-gun style squirt guns, with the intention of exercising my 2nd amendment rights, but really, the crowd was largely civil (in line) and middle aged, so I decided to reign in my satire. Everyone was chummy and saving spaces for those of us who had to run to cars for things, etc. New Mexicans are as relaxed and friendly as Oregonians for the most part (with a similar ratio of rural crazies). People were also having enthusiastic debates while waiting in line, both with their neighbors and with the various volunteers that would patrol the lines and try to give you stickers/signs/petitions/flyers. I decided early on that I wouldn't take more than my original sticker, or I would end up looking like a NASCAR driver, which made me uncomfortable. I guess I'm not much of a protester at heart.

So, while people were friendly and civil (in line), I overheard a lot of things that reminded me that we (myself included) are also woefully uninformed about a whole range of things.

In the town hall itself, people were a little more rowdy with their boos, and yells and clapping, especially towards the end when we got a series of repeated questions about the Constitutionality of the bill. (folks could enter their names on a ticket and if drawn, could go forward and have 2 min to rant/ask a question). This one is kinda hard to discuss because unlike questions about paying for the bill, why not single payer plans, how will we lower malpractice costs, etc. etc., there is no satisfactory answer and the only way to really test it is to pass the bill, then let it get challenged in the courts. The post office came up a lot in these parts, which makes me wonder if these folks (who seemed to identify as libertarian) wanted to dismember that as well. Even more interesting, everyone seemed to agree that letting insurance plans cross state lines was a good thing, even though the republican on the panel was arguing for a state-by-state healthcare reform.

A lot of phrases flew around where I understood the words, but not what the heck people meant by them.

a) socialism
b) why can't we solve this using American ingenuity
c) surcharges (= taxes?? This was the first time I heard politicians use this buzzword)

There was also a running theme in the crowd, on both sides of the fence, which I think I had been feeling myself, but hadn't really gotten to the front of my mind: Choice. Nothing freaks Americans out more than the prospect of loosing their choices.

choosing their insurance (even though most of us don't have a lot of control over what insurance our employers provide, what the details are or when it goes away)

choosing their treatments, or lack thereof (this is not a choice we exercise much, since we are not medical professionals and we know they know better, deep down)

choosing how to allocate costs (everyman for himself, or spread out)

And, what seemed to be freaking out the dissenters in this crowd, is the choice of healthcare reform and what kind of reform. Unlike the last presidential election, were everyone got their vote out, felt empowered and yadda yadda, this issue, where everyone feels so passionately, and will effect everyone so closely, is being discussed, dismantled and will eventually be passed/destroyed by congress, not us. If you think your congressperson is actually representing their constituent's interests, great. You probably sleep great at night and are remarkably at peace when you watch the news. The rest of us, however, (myself included) don't have that much trust. And so, a lot of people in the hall today, myself included, didn't feel like they had a lot of choice, or power. Heinreich, while a moderately intelligent fellow who handled questions decently but not in any inspiring way, made it obvious that he supported this bill. He supported a reform. He supported open option. Etc. etc.

In a lot of ways, I think this was the wrong attitude to take to a town hall (even if I support the bill too). Instead of it being a discussion, instead of it being a representative listening to his constituents as a way to help him decide, instead of it being an opportunity for us to let our representative know how we would like him to vote, it put him on the defensive with those who didn't support the bill, and made them feel all the more powerless. It made him look like he was going to vote for a bill "he believed in" rather than what his constituents wanted. Even though I think the bulk of New Mexicans do in fact support reform, Heinreich wasn't acting very representative-ly. He was acting more in a "I know what's good for you, but it's too complicated to get into it here, you'll thank me when its over" I can see how that would make people more and more angry.

People can get information about the bill anywhere. They can read the whole thing online if they want. They can get answers to all the questions that were asked today on their own, in ways that are reliable and factual or ways that are totally crazy, depending on their taste. Frankly, I don't think anyone learned anything new at the town hall, and if they heard anything different from what they had already "learned" they were sure they were being lied to. The only reason for 98% of the people to be there was to get their voice heard, and to be facing a "representative" who had already made up his mind, before a solid bill even exists, well, that's pretty damn frustrating.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 24th, 2009 12:27 am (UTC)
It was very interesting attending that town hall, but yeah, I walked away feeling like nobody on either side would end up changing their minds, and so it was more of a "hear me rant" meeting. It seemed less crazy than the ones that get televised, though the crowd seemed split 50/50 and each side was equally enthusiastic. But yeah... I felt like I didn't hear any new concerns OR new answers.

That one guy near the end, did he seriously ask about Death Panels? I thought it was something like that but I didn't catch his whole question. One thing I heard from the panel was the idea of relating health insurance to car insurance -- insurance is there when you have an accident, but not when you're handling preventative care. I don't know if that's such a great comparison...

But you brought up some things I hadn't considered before... You're right, it's not like the election since the public isn't voting on it, just their representatives, and they may not care about what you think if they have enough of a majority of constituents to re-elect them (or at least it may seem that way). Also, you don't seem to hear a lot from people who aren't strongly one way or the other... I haven't, at least!

But even if you agree with your Congressmen, I don't know if you're sleeping easy. Even though the House bill has tremendous support, things are more dicey in the Senate. But even the House bill is in a delicate situation, as there are Democrats who say they won't vote for a House bill without a public option -- enough for it to lose the majority vote. Meanwhile, one of the two committees in the Senate hasn't even FINALIZED their bill yet -- that's the one with the Chuck Grassley fellow who seems to be popping up in the news a lot, and they're strongly against a public option (one person on the committee even said it's never even been on the table).

Well... This should be interesting!
Aug. 24th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
Thanks for coming with me! It's nice to hear ideas from other people who were there.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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