Dan Balz's Take
In Colorado, a Sizable Schism on Health-Care Reform
By Dan Balz
WINDSOR, Colo. -- The town hall meeting began with angry protests over an absent congresswoman and a near-confrontation between two men sharply divided over the state of the nation's health-care system. It ended nearly two hours later, with nothing close to a consensus and the challenges for President Obama all the more evident.
The meeting came just as the White House was announcing that Obama will speak to a joint session of Congress next week. The speech is an effort to seize control of a debate that has been sliding away from the president for the past two months. White House officials hope the address will mark a turning point in the debate and act as a spur to Congress to pass a bill by the end of year.
Had the White House sent emissaries to the Windsor Recreation Center on Wednesday afternoon, they would have come away with a deeper belief that the American system of health care is badly in need of repair. From the stories told by those in the audience, there is nothing equitable in the capricious way the current insurance system treats people with similar diseases.
But those White House officials, had they been in Windsor, might also have emerged with something bordering on despair at the schism that now exists over an issue that touches everyone as personally as health care. As one man in the audience put it, without any hyperbole, health care is "probably the most divisive issue in this country since the Vietnam War."
In Windsor, as at many of the town halls this summer, opponents of the bills in Congress far outnumbered supporters. Their criticisms combined opposition to Obama's agenda, worry about how changes might affect their own health care, confusion over exactly what is in the legislation and hostility toward what they see as government encroachment on their freedoms.
A registered nurse charged that there would be "legal genocide" if health care passes -- and questioned whether Obama was born in America. Other opponents complained of the loss of individual freedom inherent in the reforms. There were angry denunciations of the drain on the system from "illegal aliens." There was criticism of Obama as a president who has brought communists into his administration. And throughout the nearly two hours there were repeated expressions of distrust of the government.
Rep. Betsy Markey, a first-term Democrat in what has been a reliably Republican district, was supposed to be at the meeting, but at that last minute was unable to attend. In her place, two aides acted as spear catchers as they skillfully guided the discussion and kept the conversation generally civil, if not always calm.
When one member of the audience asked Markey's district director, Ken Bennett, what he would report back from the meeting, he said, among other things, the sense of fear people have about changes in the system.
"It's not fear that we have," Nancy Winters told him. "It's mistrust. Don't tell her we're afraid. We don't trust them. There is an agenda with this administration."
But supporters of reforming the system, while outnumbered, were not shy in arguing for change. Paul Hill said his wife is a breast cancer survivor, but told the others she was fired from her job at a small business because the premiums for her insurance became more than the company could bear. "You're being conned by the insurance industry," he said.
Ellen Wheeler told the audience her daughter suffers from a disease and that if her daughter's husband loses his health insurance, "They will be destitute. It won't take any time at all. She needs something. Do you want them to be on welfare? That's not what any of us want. Talk about a government run program."
The long public debate over the legislation has hardened the lines between Democrats and Republicans, legislators and citizens alike. But two Colorado Democrats say they will return to Washington with an even greater determination to pass health care this year.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate last January and who faces a difficult election in 2010, said, "I was committed going in but I feel more compelled on it because I've heard story after story after story of families having to endure a set of choices that nobody should have to."
Bennet favors a bill that is a "substantial departure from the status quo," not incremental change. But that bill, he said, must recognize the public's legitimate concerns about the deficit and national debt and must include provisions that will control rising health-care costs. "We need to be enormously careful about how we do it," he said.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents a suburban Denver district, found himself caught between two neighbors with differing views while pumping gas one morning a few weeks ago. One neighbor said he worried that Obama is trying to do too much too soon and warned against doing anything that isn't financially sound. The other, who told Perlmutter he would like to start a new business but can't move from his current job because his wife has a disease and they might not be able to afford insurance, urged rapid action.
Perlmutter said August has given him a chance to reflect on the legitimate criticisms of the pending bills. But with a daughter who has epilepsy and faces either getting no insurance or paying prohibitively high rates, he said the August break has generated a passion to act. "There is an urgency here that is a real urgency," he said, "but there is a legitimate point: if we do all this, where are the savings, how do we finance it?"
When the meeting in Windsor ended, Paul Hill came over to make one more point. "We've been too wimpy," he said of those who favor major changes in the health care system. "We've got to pump up the volume. I'm an old Sixties radical, I know how this works. And I'm raising my voice. My wife and I happen to be by circumstance kind of victimized by the void in the system. And I'm speaking out just like I used to speak out about Vietnam. Call it self-interest if you will but there has to be a lot of people in our situation."
What should the president do now? "He made a big mistake by inviting Congress to figure out how to do this," Hill said. "Take it back. Take it back and do what he did to get elected. Do the same thing for health care. The same dynamics. Take it back." But Hill sounded skeptical about where things now stand. "It's probably dead on arrival as we speak," he said, adding that what Obama should do is regroup and start over.
That is the purpose behind Obama's decision to deliver a prime-time speech next week. The president hopes to put his own imprint on the debate, which has been lacking as multiple committees in the House and Senate work on conflicting versions of the legislation. But words alone may not resolve the conflicts he faces as he enters the fall.
The Windsor meeting showed that Obama can do little at this point to mollify his harshest critics. To win this battle, he now must satisfy proponents, many of them liberal Democratic activists who are increasingly energized and hungry for him to make good on his promise of real change. But he also must reassure those in the middle, who see flaws in the current system but who worry about the cost and scale of government involvement in the changes that might be coming.
That is how August changed the health care debate.
Posted at 1:36 PM ET on Sep 3, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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