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From Saturday's Public Forum with Niki Tsongas

From Saturday's Public Forum with Niki Tsongas

August 9, 2009

Supporters held signsHello From Niki Tsongas’ Community Meeting at the Chelmsford Town Hall. The meeting was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. but the place was packed to capacity at 9:30 a.m. Hundreds of people were in the overflow of the parking lot, with signs, songs and slogans, and a good dose of respect-filled conversation.

The radicals from the right handed out some very scary materials, and there were a smattering of single payer advocates, and an equal number holding signs in favor of reform, but mostly there were people in the middle interested in telling their stories and learning more about what health reform will mean for them. These were the folks asking questions, and very disappointed not to be in the auditorium. At the very beginning I thought that the majority of the crowd opposed reform, but eventually, by about 10:15 the sides were even, and groups were beginning to congregate together, mostly with their backs to the hateful signs and chanting. I talked to plenty of national reform opponents who did not want to be associated with the sad fringe.

I also talked to lots of people who like their current health care and are worried about losing theirThere was a large turn out for the event. health insurance. Several are in treatment for chronic and difficult illnesses. I tried to reassure
them that they will not have to change plans after national reform happens, but I think that we (advocates) should be mindful of the educational opportunities that these forums present. People are hungry for clear and accurate information. Should we walk around with copies of the legislation? I don’t know. I do know that it was helpful to talk through the legislative process with several people
who honestly thought that the House bill was a done deal.

There was an incredibly earnest woman who was in her late 50’s walking away from the crowd carrying about 100 brochures that had some of the most inflammatory and inaccurate information that was being distributed at the event. I asked her whether she worked with the group that had written the materials and it turned out that she did not, but was taking it back to the nursing home where she worked because her “residents have no idea what is going on, and they have to wake up and get involved!” We spoke for a long time, as I thought that it was important that she be aware of how scary and inaccurate the brochure that she proposed to distribute was. I don’t know whether she will slip the information under her residents’ doors, but hope that she will e-mail me and Health Care For All so that we can direct her to some more balanced information.

An awful lot of people after hearing that I was there for Health Care For All demanded to know whether we are for or against reform – and HCFA is for national reform. We know that this is a messy process – and just like in Massachusetts, we will expect to make incremental improvements as we go along. I talked about the need for consumer engagement and empowerment as part of reform, and some people thought that having an analogous HelpLine in national reform would be an important addition.

I was summoned by one group that as adamantly opposed to a public option, but wanted national health reform. We had a terrific exchange, and their concerns boiled down to worrying that all private insurers would eventually go out of business if there is a public option. This was both a wonderfully erudite and substantive conversation and I appreciated the opportunity to talk through serious policy considerations. But my very favorite group was the delegation from the Devon Democrats. A group of about 8 women from Devon who came to support reform – and were advocating civil discourse and respectful disagreement. They were wonderful! As were the nurses who had worked long shifts this week and would return to care for the patients who depend on them. They are really looking for payment reform so that they can be paid for the time spent on ancillary care. I talked to them about the state of payment reform in Massachusetts.

The loudest and most hostile opponents of national reform came from Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, and Bulgaria (not kidding). The level of fear and anger that some expressed came as a surprise to me as I walked through the crowd handing out HCFA brochures and talking about our work in the state and our support for national reform. It was energizing to hear and see Tsongas constituents really talking to each other about health reform. I listened in on amazing conversations about people’s experience with their own health care providers, and the parts of the system that are most important to them.

The most fortunate guy in the 300+ person crowd was a gentleman who said that he had never had any problem with his health care. He doesn’t have to wait, pay too much, or make life decisions based on his coverage. Not only has he never had a problem, he doesn’t know anyone who has ever had a problem with the health care system. For the rest of us, I think that reform is what we need. We have to get people coverage and we have to make sure that the coverage we have is comprehensive and affordable.

A group of supporters pose for a picture.There are more forums being held in August and I highly recommend that you go early, take good clear information and talk and listen in equal measures. There is much to learn during this debate. Health care is a very personal, and complicated matter, and the more straight forward, clear and accurate information that we can provide those who are interested, the better chance we have of making national improvements through health reform. Democracy can be a challenge. Free speech is a wonderful right, but surely we all benefit when all sides can be respected and share the opportunity to be heard.

- Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Executive Director