Critical Condition

No Angry Mobs, But Passionate Citizens in La. Town Halls

A driving rainstorm did not dampen the spirits of 600 people who came to the Lafayette Public Library to tell Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) about their serious concerns over the threats that they believe “Obamacare” presents to their health care.

Senator Vitter himself was late because of the huge traffic jam around the library. Citizens, some soaking wet, poured into the library, determined that their voices be heard. The parking lot was jammed, and the main auditorium filled quickly, with some people arriving at 1 p.m. for the 4:30 town-hall meeting. Even with two overflow rooms set up, a couple hundred people could not get in.

The meeting started with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. These were average citizens who are passionate, patriotic, and very worried. They mocked politicians who call them “un-American,” “evil-mongers,” and an “angry mob.”

Speaker after speaker praised Senator Vitter for voicing strong concerns about the health-reform legislation making its way through Congress and for his amendment to require members of Congress and their families to participate in any public plan they create. “I am unalterably opposed to the huge takeover of our health-care system proposed by Obamacare,” he said, to huge cheers.

People wrote their questions out on short forms, and the senator’s staff selected several dozen for him to call on. He read their questions and then gave each one a chance to amplify, with equal numbers called on from all three meeting rooms.

Senator Vitter was very much in control of the meeting while still maintaining a real conversation with each questioner. Many people said they had never attended a town-hall meeting before, but they wanted to do something to stand up against the threats they believe are embedded in the thousand-page bill Congress is considering.

Among the questioners were the owner of a truck-washing company worried she would have to close her business if she were forced to provide expensive health insurance to her workers; a lawyer who said he would lose his license if he told a client to sign a document without reading it and wondered how Congress could dare pass a $700 billion stimulus bill without knowing what was in it; and a veteran who got a standing ovation when he said “I fought for freedom and put my life at risk” and who can’t imagine that Congress would pass a bill undermining our health freedom.

Other hot-button issues: The $1 trillion-plus price tag of the legislation; the American Medical Association endorsing the House bill; the swelling ranks of policy “czars” in Washington; the costs of health care for illegal immigrants; mandated abortion coverage; and taking $500 billion out of Medicare, not to fix the program but to start a new government entitlement program.

Senator Vitter is holding 18 town-hall meetings around the state this month. I attended yesterday’s meeting as a policy expert on a panel of three speakers who helped begin the discussion.

Dr. Andrew Blalock, a local physician who is a renal-transplant specialist, spoke first about the changes he believes Obamacare would bring to his profession, putting regulators and politicians at the center of medical decisions and taking away his ability to provide the best care for his patients. He said that workforce shortages and medical malpractice reform should be Washington’s first priorities.

The next speaker was Max Hoyt, owner of a local printing company, who talked about the practical impact of an employer mandate, higher taxes, and risks of undermining the innovation that the American people value in health care. His policy prescriptions are straight out of the free-market playbook — fairer subsidies, portable insurance, and better options to purchase more competitive insurance.

I told the audience that if they are “un-American” (as Nancy Pelosi put it) for speaking their minds, they have a lot of company: A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that four out of five Americans believe the reform plan will increase health costs, sharply increase the deficit, reduce their health coverage, limit the quality of care, limit choice of doctors, and increase bureaucracy.

I talked about how President Obama’s promises (about lowering costs, increasing quality, and expanding choice and competition) are belied by the reality of independent analyses that show his reform plan would do precisely the opposite. And I warned that, while the administration may now be backing away from its insistence on a government health plan, many other serious problems remain, including individual and employer mandates, government-defined benefits packages, and strict federal regulation of health insurance through new exchanges.

As a former reporter, I was happy to see for myself how these town-hall meetings are going. People were restrained and respectful but energized by being able to participate and have their voices heard. I can also certainly understand that Senator Specter or HHS Secretary Sebelius would have received a very different reception before this crowd.

I’m traveling upstate to Monroe for another event with Senator Vitter today, then I head for Ohio later this week, and then on to Utah and Colorado next week. I will report back to you as I witness American democracy in action.

— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.