Hot debate over health care reform

August 12, 2009 9:38:05 PM PDT
For the first time this week, it was hotter inside as tempers flared over health care reform. "We have come to a point where it's more important to give illegal immigrants health care," argued one participant.

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On both sides there is a combination of anger and frustration.

Close to 400 people packed into the Rutherford council chambers with another hundred or so stretching out the door and still more unable to get into the building at all.

It is the 6th health care reform meeting in three days by Congressman Steve Rothman. At times, he was trying to separate fact from fiction.

For two hours, the congressman's constituents gave him an earful...

In the end, on both sides of the debate there was still frustration.

"I'm very unhappy and that's why I'm here, the private system hasn't worked," Daniel Buckley said.

At an earlier town hall meeting in Englewood Cliffs also hosted by Congressman Rothman, one woman was furious with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She recently called all the rowdy protests across the country un-American.

"This is not Cuba. This is not Europe. Freedom is what we have in this country and so (begins to cry) you take my tears to Washington and tell Madam Pelosi that! I still have the right to say nobody tells me how to live my life," Josephine Grubelich of Englewood Cliffs said.

For many voters here, the biggest worry is being forced into some kind of a system they don't want.

Congressman Rothman says a public option is necessary to compete with insurance companies.

"Nobody. Nobody is going to be forced into the public health care option. That's why it's a public health option, Rep. Rothman said.

The mood is the same across the country. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican who is a key bargainer on health care reform, played to packed crowds across Iowa who left little doubt that they are not happy with what's on the table.

The questions were tough but respectful, and there was little of the shouting that has dominated similar meetings in other parts of the country.

"It seems to me that people are expressing, not just on health care, but people are just very scared about the direction the country is taking," said Grassley, who emphasized that he hasn't signed off on anything.

Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and he's been deep in bargaining seeking a compromise health care plan that could get some Republican votes. He made it clear there are portions of the current measure he can't swallow.

The boisterous forums held by many federal lawmakers have emphasized the challenge for President Barack Obama's administration as it tries to win over skeptical voters to an expensive plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill were among those who hosted raucous town halls on Tuesday. Speaking Wednesday in Harrisburg, Pa., Specter said that the protesters are "not necessarily representative of America" but should be heard.

"There's more anger out there now than I have ever seen before," the Democrat said. "And I think the anger is caused by so many people having lost their jobs and (being) worried about losing their health insurance."

In North Dakota, a raucous crowd packed a fire hall in Casselton on Wednesday to talk to Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, with few signs of support for the reform plans. One woman was booed when she said an overhaul is necessary.

Other meetings were less combative. In Kansas, Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins faced a friendly crowd of more than 200 people, drawing applause as she listed flaws she sees in the legislation before Congress.

Several audience members at Topeka's Holiday Inn Holidome said they believe Jenkins is listening to them - when the Democrats controlling Congress are not.

"I think that's where the yelling comes in," said Jerry Aller, a 55-year-old farmer and postal worker who drove 70 miles from his hometown of Hiawatha.

In Iowa, nearly 500 people jammed a sweltering community center meeting room to see Grassley, with virtually all describing health reform as a government takeover of the nation's health care system that's a prescription for disaster.

Charlotte Fett manages a local clinic, and she said doctors are already forced to fight their way through a blizzard of bureaucracy.

"I'm concerned about the layers of regulation that health care has now," she said. "This will make it worse I think and I've been in health care for 40 years."

"I don't want the government or a bureaucrat working for the government to come between you and your doctor," said Grassley. "I think the stakes are very, very high."

Grassley has opposed Obama's call for creation of a public option that the president says would drive up competition and force private insurers too reduce their rates. Grassley says only people in the country legally should be covered by a government-funded health care program, and opposes any plan that "determines when you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

None of the bills in Congress would provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, but it didn't keep people from expressing concern about it.

Obama has declared that the provision causing the uproar over end-of-life care only authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling about end-of-life care. He says it would not "basically pull the plug on grandma because we decided that it's too expensive to let her live anymore."

National Republicans have seen an opportunity in the health care debate to target vulnerable Democrats. The National Republican Campaign Committee plans to run television and radio advertisements throughout August targeting at least seven members of Congress in competitive races.

The first advertisement, targeting Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., will run this week in the Green Bay, Wis., television market. The ad seeks to tie Kagen to health care legislation.

Other Democrats being targeted by the NRCC with paid advertising this month include Reps. Zack Space, D-Ohio; Michael Acuri, D-N.Y.; Harry Teague, D-N.M.; Ike Skelton, D-Mo.; Chris Carney, D-Pa. and Bill Foster, D-Ill.

GOP officials would not say how much they were spending on the advertisements or how often they would air.

Associated Press Writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.



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