Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Tale of Two Townhalls

Last week, I had the very interesting experience of attending two town
hall meetings on healthcare with Rep Yvette Clarke and Rep Anthony
Weiner (both Democrats in NY).

Despite the fact that they were only a few stops apart on the Q train,
it was like being on two different planets. Despite the fact that the
topic and the Q&A format at both was the same, the process seemed
driven by two different objectives.

First, I arrived at Rep Clarke's town hall at a church in Flatbush. A
few cops stood outside, but otherwise it was quiet. Inside, there was
a noticeable diversity of constituents of all ages and backgrounds
among the 200 or so present. The signs people were holding up were
clearly in support of health care reform. Rep Clarke spent the
majority of her time explaining the content of HR 3200, especially how
people would be affected. There was frequent applause in support of
her efforts and of the House bill. Not a single voice expressed
dissent. The presentation is available on Clarke's website.

Then I got on the Q train and took a bus to CUNY Kingsborough
Community College to hear Rep Weiner speak. A few cops stood outside
as well as several anti-reform protesters holding signs equating Obama
with Nazis, and other equally reprehensible, illogical accusations. I
could hear people shouting before I entered the auditorium. Most of
the anti-reform people were older and white (men were more likely to
get on the mic), while the pro-reform were younger and people of
color. Rep Weiner was attempting to answer people's questions, but
many in the crowd kept shouting him down. This was not a discussion
but rather an argument. There was no opportunity to debate. People
would ask questions and then prevent him from answering. People made
statements disguised as questions - about death panels, government
take-over of care, paying for lazy people who don't want jobs, etc.
When a woman, claiming to be a former enrollment officer for SCHIP,
screamed about the children of illegal immigrants getting health care
I couldn't hold back. I stood up yelled: "But they're children!!!" She
was obviously ignorant or unconcerned with the fact that the current
proposed legislation doesn't cover undocumented immigrants.

For the most part, those in support of health care reform made their
voices heard through the Q & A process. Several health care
professional, some from other countries, shared their views. All
except one nurse and one of the docs who spoke were in support of
health care reform. One man filmed the proceedings while, at the same
time shouting at Rep. Weiner, who nonetheless would directly approach
his camera to make certain points. Rep Weiner, as many of us are
aware, knows his facts. He put a lot of energy into attempting a
discussion about those facts. For many who were there however, the
facts were not the point. As I left the room I was engaged in a
“conversation” with one of the anti-reform people, who kept insisting
that this was a government takeover and that we couldn’t afford it, at
the same time acknowledging that she didn't support private insurance
industry practices. She made no sense. At the end I suggested we
agree to disagree.

Some great quotes:
- By Rep Clarke, regarding the “individual mandate”: "We all have the
intellect, as a species that shares this planet, to understand that we
all have the opportunity to become vulnerable to things such as
communicable diseases, e.g. H1N1 flu.” The point is that we are all
affected (whether through shared vulnerability or shared cost) if
someone without health insurance needs and cannot receive medical
treatment. The unmet cost of insurance or of treatment ultimately
falls on the taxpayer. The benefits of an “Individual mandate” seem
widely misunderstood.

- By a reform supporter in response to a heckler yelling about how
reform would increase his taxes: "I don't have a problem paying my
taxes, I have a problem paying my premiums!"

- By Rep Weiner: "So let me clarify to you what socialism means:
socialism is when the government has control over the means of
production, not just the means of paying for a service. So this is
not socialism, even if you want it to be. Just in case you didn't
understand what the word meant..."

Lesson learned: People are not interested in the facts; and they're
interested in feeling right. The question is, how do we have a
conversation with that?

Manel Silva, MD,
Director, NPA NY Local Action Network

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