DERBY, Conn. — In search of a solution to the health care crisis, several hundred people jammed into the Griffin Hospital auditorium Saturday for a town hall meeting with Sen. Chris Dodd, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Obama health director Nancy-Ann DeParle. The meeting was called as legislation in Congress is on a fast track, with the issue of a public choice at the center of the debate, and the sentiment was strong for a public health care system.
Congressional staff members brought microphones through the audience for the question and answer session. ‘The legislation is being crafted now,’ said DeParle. ‘That is why we are traveling the country to listen to you.’
DeLauro put the meeting into the context of the economic crisis. ‘In the economic chaos,’ she said, ‘14,000 people are losing their coverage every day.’
Dodd said that he is committed to developing a bill that is affordable and universal with quality care and an emphasis on prevention.
Judith Stein, who founded the Center for Medicare Advocacy in 1986, was one of several health care experts invited by Dodd. She summed up the majority sentiment in the room when she said, ‘we should learn the lessons Medicare can teach.’ She recalled that in 1965 when Medicare was founded, the public / private debate took place. As a public system she said, Medicare provides affordable, universal, quality access to basic health care.
Stein asked the elected officials to ‘consider Medicare for All,’ charging the Bush administration with bankrupting Medicare by privatization with Medicare Advantage and Part D. ‘The public is desperate for a public plan,’ she exclaimed. ‘Please don’t do something if it does not include a public plan.’
A group of Yale medical students wearing their white hospital coats expressed support for HR 676, the Medicare for All single-payer bill introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). One of the students, who said she is committed to practice family medicine among the underserved, declared, ‘I don’t want an insurance company standing between me and my patient.’
She appealed for a representative in Congress to ‘speak for us,’ receiving an enthusiastic applause in contrast to the silence that greeted the Aetna representative who had spoken earlier in support of universal coverage to be paid by the individual or government subsidy. Many realized that the insurance giant opposes a public option in favor of a plan in which they would enjoy more profits.
The meeting was not unanimous however. Several speakers opposed any government intervention at all. When one man decried the proposal for a public option as ‘rationed health care,’ echoing Republican attack ads, Rosa DeLauro intervened
‘I am a cancer survivor,’ she said recalling her younger years. ‘I was lucky that my family could afford to get me the care I needed. But so many others could not.’ Speaking passionately to loud applause she asserted, ‘what we have now is rationed care. We don’t want rationed care. We want care for everyone. That’s what this is all about.’
The meeting began on a rocky note. When Dodd came to the podium first one and then another audience member who had traveled to the meeting from out of state began shouting that the event was rigged and single-payer was not going to be included. The apparent attempt to prevent the meeting from proceeding failed as the rest of the audience shouted ‘sit down.’
Once the meeting got started, a woman who had driven across the state to get there was recognized. She told the story of her family business closing due to the economic crisis and the family being confronted with an unaffordable $2000 a month health care bill. ‘I understand why the single payer people are upset,’ she remarked to applause, ‘and I believe the public option is part of that process.’
As the two-hour session proceeded Dodd walked down the aisle to respond, indicating the strong opposition to health care reform from Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress. ‘Just having a public option is a big fight,’ he said. ‘As members of Congress, Rosa and I have the best coverage of all. We should take that Federal Benefit Plan and give it to everyone.’
As the ranking Democrat under Sen. Edward Kennedy on the Health and Education Committee, Dodd is in a key position. ‘I want to hear from you,’ said Dodd. ‘We cannot continue as present, the system is broken. We will continue doing this to keep the door open.’
Nancy-Ann DeParle observed that while the majority of the room was for single-payer or a public option, there were different views. ‘This is a microcosm of the country,’ she said, ‘and we have a difficult job.’ She said universal care for all Americans ‘must get done this year.’
Legislation that would pool existing government health plans to lower costs to municipalities, and legislation that would provide a public option are now under consideration in the Connecticut General Assembly, and State Rep. Chris Donovan, Speaker of the House, urged support. ‘We’re working to make sure we’re ready to move when the federal government says ‘here’s what we’ve got.”