The health care debate comes home


If you pay attention at all to the network news, you’re no doubt aware of controversy surrounding August Recess town hall meetings which Members of Congress have been conducting in their districts.  The news reports I’ve seen show folks making angry accusations and claiming that aspects of health care bills which have been moving forward in the House of Representatives will usher in an age of draconian government control, socialism and euthanasia. From the repetition and other evidence it is clear that these folks are being organized by Republican operatives and encouraged by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

I decided I’d like to attend one of these meetings to see for myself what is going on and maybe even to challenge some of the anti-reform folks if they disrupted the meeting. Like most of the West’s rural areas, the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California and Southwest Oregon are home to active, anti-government and anti-environmental sentiment. Grassroots organizations focus this sentiment in opposition to environmental protection and government regulation. I wanted to see if these folks would come out on the health care issue and I wanted to make sure those like me who favor a single payer system would be heard.

Unfortunately, my Congressman, Mike Thompson, conducted his recess meeting by phone hook-up. I participated but was a bit disappointed. Then I heard that Congressman Peter DeFazio was holding a town hall meeting in Brookings – just a short drive up the coast from my home near the mouth of the Klamath River in California. This morning I attended that meeting.

The small multi-purpose room at the senior center was full and the crowd overflowed into the parking lot. Before the meeting I had the opportunity not only to study the crowd but also to speak with some of the folks attending. From these conversations and observing the meeting it appeared that most of those in attendance who oppose health care reform are elderly (over 70). Of the four with whom I spoke, three had Medicare and one is retired Navy and happy with the socialized medical care he receives from the VA.

It seems to me that those opposing health care reform both in Southwest Oregon and nationally are not so concerned about the reforms directly but more about the direction the country is going under President Obama in general. The older folks I met feel powerless to affect the course of the country at the same time that their physical and mental powers are in decline. It is this malaise – this vague sense that something is wrong coupled with feelings of personal powerlessness – that renders folks vulnerable to manipulation by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Rush and the rest of the leadership of the far Right provide them with a focus and a target for their concerns about where their country is headed.  

I was also interested to learn what percentage of the crowd was there to oppose Obama and Health Care reform and what portion was there to support reform in the form of single payer or a public option.  Judging from response to applause lines, I estimate that about 1/3 of the folks attending were there because they support strong reform (single payer or public option), 1/3 were there to oppose Obama and reform and 1/3 were there because of specific concerns about medical issues, cuts to local medical programs, shortages of doctors and the lack of sufficient quality care in their communities.

I am also happy to report that, for the most part, the Brookings Town Hall Meeting was polite and respectful. Mr. DeFazio opened by acknowledging what had taken place elsewhere in the country and asserting that Oregonians were not that way. The crowd lived up to his high expectations. Not even the few Californians in the audience caused disruptions.