Issues calmly debated at northern Calif. health care Town Hall

ALAMEDA, Calif. ― Forty minutes before starting time, the line outside Alameda City Hall already stretched down the steps and across the block. Bright yellow tee-shirts printed with Health Care Reform Now! mingled with signs, Who profits from the status quo? and Public option now! Though most in the crowd clearly supported reform, one placard featured a vampire-toothed Uncle Sam demanding, “I want your money!”

The occasion was Rep. Pete Stark’s third town hall meeting on health reform on the morning of Aug. 15. Hundreds of his constituents had already turned out in Fremont and San Leandro to question the veteran Democrat and co-author of H.R. 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.

As one of the lucky 160 who could crowd into the small auditorium waited for their congressman, Dr. Mark Posner, an anesthesiologist and Alameda resident who said he had spent a decade each in the Navy, in private practice and now working for Kaiser Permanente, called the lack of coverage for 50 million Americans “a disgrace … I don’t understand why everyone can’t have the care I have.”

Sitting next to him was Karen Green, program chair of the Alameda City Democratic Club. After a mid-career switch into teaching, she retired early to care for her mother, which, she said, left her with little retirement income. “Now I have to pay $7,200 a year for my COBRA. I spoke with my union recently about declaring bankruptcy.”

Green favors single payer “but it won’t happen now.” A public option would be fine, she said, “but people need to know what it is.” At an earlier Stark town hall, she organized questions submitted on cards. “The most frequent question was, ‘what is the public option?’”

Opening the meeting, Stark dealt with two questions he said came up frequently at earlier gatherings. He assured the crowd that undocumented immigrants would not be covered (an audience member later said they should indeed be covered, and he agreed). And he carefully explained that contrary to the “death panel” allegation, the bill would actually fund voluntary counseling on end-of-life options ― a provision very like a measure Republicans okayed in 2003. “It would help to read the whole section instead of just a line or two,” he observed.

As a woman stood up and yelled, “Section 123 …” a roar of “Shhh, sit down” arose from the audience. (They later “shushed” with equal vigor when a reform supporter shouted at an opponent.)

Among questions in a largely civil discussion were whether the bill would contain Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s amendment letting states approve single payer systems (Stark said the issue would be voted on). Others asked about pre-existing conditions (they could not be used to deny coverage), about small businesses (the smallest would be exempt, others would qualify for subsidies), and how a public option can be both self-sustaining and affordable (hopefully its lower overhead can keep costs down). Stark countered the charge that “comparative effectiveness research” would lead to rationing of care by emphasizing data collection’s importance in improving treatment.

Some speakers pointed to funds now spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I’d much rather spend the money on health care,” Stark said, noting that he voted against the war appropriation.

At one point Stark asked how many in the audience opposed the president’s reform principles. Eight hands went up. He invited most to speak.

One asked, “If this public option is so great, will you and your son join it?” “Yes,” the congressman declared unequivocally. “It’s my committee that helped establish it. There’s no way I can tell you I wouldn’t take it. But no one will be forced to do so.”

Meanwhile, several hundred people held their own town hall on the lawn, singing, cheering and listening to speeches. They overwhelmingly favored health care for all, but heartily agreed to support the president’s public option. Any “boos” came from a handful of “single-payer” supporters who would accept nothing less even if it killed reform for now. At the end of the meeting, Rep. Stark addressed the crowd from the steps, to loud applause.

Another health care reform effort, this time directed to California Senator Dianne Feinstein, brought over 1,200 visitors to her San Francisco office during the week ― all but 15 of whom backed a public option, organizers said. Participants called on the senator to meet personally with her constituents and explain that she supports a public option, as she said earlier in the summer. One participant read selections from Feinstein’s replies to her letters; staff and visitors agreed the responses were unclear. They urged people to continue pressing the senator to clarify her views.

Organizing for America, MoveOn, Health Care for America Now, the Alameda Labor Council and others helped mobilize reform supporters to participate in the town halls and visits.

Judy Ann Alberti contributed to this article.