It was the helicopters circling the high school and the bumper-to-bumper traffic that first clued me in that Congressman Gary Peter’s Town Hall Meeting on health care reform was going to be an interesting experience. Okay, that’s not even a good assessment. It was scary, amazing, raucous, polite, angry, and compelling all at the same time.
I sat in traffic for nearly two hours and watched passengers get out of their cars, walk to the West Bloomfield High School and return because there were no seats left in the 800 person capacity auditorium. People of all ages walked by carrying signs and notepads. Finally, I found a parking spot five blocks from the school and hiked up to the front entrance. I had seen a large crowd with signs outside the school as I went by and I knew it was going to be interesting talking my way into the auditorium since I was late due to the traffic.
In preparation, I clipped on my media badge and had the camera out and ready. As I walked to the school, I could hear the chanting – “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” Supporters stood along the street with the same message accompanied by the honking of horns from cars that were driving by.
A friendly policeman directed me to the media door, which was carefully hidden around the corner from the front entry. After showing my credentials, I was allowed into the auditorium just in time to see a woman at the microphone yelling at the top of her lungs at Congressman Gary Peters. She touched on a subject that would be mentioned several times during the event – a lack of trust in government and legislators in particular.
Every statement made, either from Congressman Peters or from the microphone was met with a loud response. Sometimes it was applause, sometimes it was booing, sometimes it was groaning. But the neat thing was that even though the atmosphere in the room was definitely charged, it was still under control. “Plants” in the audience who tried to yell out were immediately shushed by their neighbors. People had come to talk, listen, learn and be a part of the event. They were angry, frustrated, vocal and scared, but for the most part they were not rude.
If you are a fan of the Michigan Nurses Association Facebook page, you received a good idea of what was going on in “real” time as I was sending notes to one of my co-workers as fast as possible while she edited them and Tweeted the message. If you missed it on Facebook, here are some of the thoughts from people at the microphone:
- “Doctors don’t want to be told how to practice medicine.”
- “Will legislators have the same insurance the public has?”
- “Who wrote the bill and will we get a chance to look at it for 10 days before it’s passed?”
- Are the media serving us well? (Cong. Peters response to this was to jokingly ask how many liberal media were in the room.)
- “Who is going to handle this public health plan?”
- “Can we have a paper or something that explains this (the bill)?”
- “I pay a lot of taxes and it is hard for me to watch the misuse of my money.”
- “Will you represent Michigan residents fairly?”
- “If you’re going to do this (health care reform), you need to look at the whole picture.”
- “You should talk to ob/gyns about how their malpractice costs are going up.”
- “Are senior citizens going to be left out of health care? We aren’t going to be able to get the swine flu vaccine.” (There was a large swell of muttering and protests after this comment and someone yelled, “You don’t want it!”)
- “How in the world are we going to pay for this?”
- “Why can’t we have real reform based on the Medicare system?”
- “I see no reason why my medical records need to be stored in one location.” (This statement was met with a great deal of clapping and yelling. Cong. Peters explained that “we would have to make sure those records are secure.” The audience booed and groaned at this.)
Congressman Peters handled the meeting effectively – listening, taking notes, and keeping his voice calm and responses positive. Here’s some of what he said:
- “I’m still undecided about this bill.”
- “I will not vote for a bill that does not allow you to keep your health insurance.”
- On regulation – “Often times you have insurance companies who tell doctors what to do.” (This was met with much applause.)
- “We need to have evidence-based research so we can provide the best treatments.”
- “We have to come together . . . in America . . . and be unified.” (Every time Cong. Peters talked about unity, there was intensified booing and yelling.)
- On capitalism: “There will still be a very active insurance market.”
- “I read the bills, do my homework . . . and vote my conscience.”
- On tort reform: “I was in the House during the time that Gov. Engler instituted the tort reform so that people cannot get compensated for injuries. I will not vote for a bill that does that (medical mistakes) to people.” (This response was interrupted numerous times with booing and yelling, then clapping.)
- “The cost of doing nothing is too high.”
- “We must pay for outcomes that produce healthier patients without using the fee-based payment system.” (Cong. Peters used the Mayo Clinic example where they are delivering better health care at a 20% cost savings.)
- “We must have fiscal responsibility.”
After the Town Hall Meeting finished, the rally of anti-health care reform supporters went into full action with chants of “Bring out Peters!” and “Kill the Bill.” To exit meant walking through them, which was a little daunting. The signs were amazing – “Kill the bill, not Grandma.” “Don’t let big brother kill your mother.” “Say no to Obama care.”
On my way into work this morning, I was still mulling over the experience. Here are my thoughts:
People have a general distrust of government and while they are interested in the idea of health care reform, they don’t believe that the government will be able to manage it properly. They also don’t believe that Congress will unify to create the plan (or anything else, for that matter).
I was impressed that even with the heated atmosphere in the room, the crowd gave Congressman Peters a standing ovation at the end of the meeting and complimented him many times from the microphone for his decision to “take it” (listen to people).
Sound bites from TV are being used as the only sources of information by too many people.
People are confused about the different proposals. Many people expressed a desire to fix “the worst areas” and not overhaul the entire health care system at once.
Even though everyone from President Obama to Congressman Peters has said that you can pick your doctor and your health insurance plan, I don’t believe anyone in that room or in the rally outside believed that for a minute. And they were vocal about it.
As I walked back to my car, I talked with a woman who wanted to know “what the nurses think.” I told her that we were being thoughtful, that many nurses had seen the effects of people not having health care. I told her about crowded ERs and safe staffing. She’s just not sure what to think. Welcome to the crowd!
If you asked me to put the experience of attending the Town Hall Meeting into one word it would be – “positive.” People spoke their minds and hearts and the Congressman listened. It wasn’t always pretty but it worked.
I was glad I was there.