Friday, September 11, 2009

The Baron Hall Health Care Town Hall in Bloomington - Sept 2, 2009

I have been putting off writing this recap for nearly 2 weeks now. In a way, I dreaded going to the Baron Hill Town Hall at Bloomington High School North. By now, everybody has heard of the Town Halls for Health Care reform across the nation, featuring buffoons shouting out talking points from their health insurance company sponsors (when they even bother to be coherent - other times they're bursting into tears screaming 'I want my country back' or spouting non-sequiturs about the Third Reich).

All that said, I felt like I HAD to be there, as part of the pro-reform crew. So I left work a bit early and I got there a bit before 5 (the event was to start at 6). There was already a long line, but I asked a friendly looking older woman in a pro-healthcare reform t-shirt was there a table or place to go if you were pro-reform, and was directed to a table where some helpful volunteers had signs for us to hold and bottles of water, too. So I picked up a sign and bottle of water (very much appreciated - it was kind of hot) and looked despairingly at the line. The woman said, oh, you should find some friends in line and wait with them, so I found a cluster of friendly pro-reform people and hung out with them, and held up my sign for a bit, although I didn't really see any photographers or news reporters around.

The anti-reform types had home-made signs where they'd written things in marker on white poster paper. I really couldn't make out most of the words, as they were hard to read, but most seemed to have the word 'Obamacare' and variations of the 'don't kill Granny' theme. One guy had a sign with Rush Limbaugh's face and the local affiliates call letters on it, just in case you had never heard of this Rush guy or had and wanted to check out his radio show. One scowling guy walked by with a shirt showing the 'Obama as the Joker from Batman' image, with the word SOCIALIST below the picture. We can only hope Santa is going to bring him a copy of 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' this Christmas.

Around 5:15 or so they let us in. The event was held not in the gym, but in an auditorium. The auditorium was not quite full, but there was a good turn out. A guy asked if he could sit next to me. I said yes, not knowing where he stood, but it turned out he was a pro-reform and pro-labor dude, so he was cool. We looked at the 'myths about the bill' handout we were given on our way in, and we laughed about the one about insurance companies being required to perform abortions, because we thought it unlikely that an actuary or adjuster or insurance salesman would be performing abortions whether they were required to or even if they wanted to.

Mayor Kruzan introduced Baron Hill around 6pm. They got a standing O, the first of many that night. Mayor Kruzan asked the crowd to say 'Yay!' and then 'Boo!' to 'get it out of our systems'. It was a nice thought anyway.

Hill started out reading an article by T.R. Reid (author of 'Healing America') which debunked various myths about other countries' health care systems (the usual 'my cousin's girlfriend works for a guy from Canada and he says he had to wait 3 months to see a doctor' sort of things).

After that it was time to take questions and statements from the audience. Any pretense of civility quickly went out the window. A woman told a story about how her father had to divorce his dying wife in order to avoid certain financial ruin, and the anti-reform people booed her. She turned around and told them off: 'I can handle your booing, because it's nothing compared to what I went through!'. A young man who worked full time and suffered from post traumatic stress problems after being robbed at gunpoint at an ATM told of his difficulties paying for treatment and obtaining insurance. He was booed, too. A peanut gallery in the back would shout sarcastic 'yeah right!'s and 'you lie!'s throughout the event.

Several times Baron Hill would appeal to the audience: 'We can turn this into the Jerry Springer show if you want, but let's show people Hoosiers are better than that!' It started to remind me of seeing Fugazi shows in the 90s. Ian MacKaye would keep stopping the show to tell people in the front to stop beating each other up in the mosh pit or they wouldn't play.

The anti-reform folks got to have their say, too. The scowly guy with the Obama as Joker t-shirt took the opportunity to ask why couldn't people videotape the event, call for tort reform (apparently the cure-all for all healthcare issues according to the anti-reform people), then railed against the Cash for Clunkers program, then things started to degenerate into him yelling a lot of things about 'Get Off My Back! Get Off Our Backs!', and the amen corner gave him some applause.

A young journalism student also asked the 'why can't we videotape' question. Baron Hill kind of lost his cool here, at first saying 'people take bits of video and post them on youTube and misrepresent my event', and then saying 'This is my event. Nobody tells me how to run my office!' which was not the smoothest thing to do. The Huffington Post picked up on this one.

There were, again, standing ovations from both contingents, and if I had to guess, I'd say there was a fairly even split, possibly with the majority of the crowd being pro-reform. The place never quite filled up, which surprised me, but possibly a lot of people decided to do something different with their Wednesday night than try to hold down their dinner while watching angry people who mainly just hate the president and want him to fail trying to shout down and intimidate people who were ready to address an unacceptable status quo.

Speaking of unacceptable status quo, a man made the good point that 'when you see plastic bottles in gas stations collecting money to help a child with leukemia, you know something is terribly wrong with our system.' An amputee who built prosthetic limbs recalled the time his health insurance company (Anthem, now Wellpoint) told him a prosthetic leg was 'not medically necessary' and denied his claim.

The local hero of the pro-reform movement, Dr. Rob Stone of 'Hoosiers For a Commonsense Health Care Plan' was given an opportunity to speak, and he got the loudest and most enthusiastic ovation of the night. Baron Hill joked 'Don't think about running for Congress, Dr. Stone'. Dr. Stone is an Emergency Room doctor and thus intimately familiar with the problems with the current system. His soft-spoken, rational and thoughtful manner stood in stark contrast to the shrill, 'regurgitate talking points first, think later' members of the anti-reform contingent. Dr. Stone is in favor of a single-payer system. Baron Hill said he was not in favor of a single-payer system, but did support a public option. He also said he gave a public option a 50-50 chance of surviving.

I'd like to say there were some lighthearted moments during the hour-long event, but the only one I can think of is a young (high school?) guy asking a question along the lines of 'on page 694, there is reference to a healthy ways committee (or some such). Does this mean the government is going to tell me what to eat, or stop companies from making certain foods?' He was reading a pre-written question, in a way that sounded like he was reading it for the first time. It was hard to tell if he was serious or joking. Baron Hill's answer: 'No.'

Another minimal moment of amusement came when we left the high school to see a 60-foot-tall headless bald eagle waiting for us. It was a rather absurd and unexpected sight. It was a hot-air balloon, and it had a 'Tea Party' sign on it. The headlessness was due to the fact that the balloon was not fully inflated at the time I first saw it. A woman asked the guys in the basket 'what insurance company is paying for that?' I never saw the balloon take off, so maybe it was just there as a static display. Possibly the giant Tea Party Eagle is their version of the giant inflatable rats that show up at Union rallies. I hadn't heard of or seen it before.

There were heated exchanges in the parking lot, but no fingers were bitten off, nor were there fisticuffs or brandished weapons. I made a point of thanking the young guy who told the story about being robbed at an ATM for telling his story in spite of the jeers, and he was grateful, but still somewhat shaken and upset about the hateful reception he'd received. It felt like it took forever to get out of the parking lot (but there were no fender benders or road rage), and though I was encouraged by the strong showing of pro-reform people, the hateful and goonish behavior of the anti-reform people left me with a slightly sick feeling which I've only been able to re-visit just now.

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