Report from Louisiana

Published in National Review Online's Critical Condition , Aug. 19, 2009

Lafayette, LA – 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.

Sen. 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 are 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 Sen. 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.

Sen. Vitter was very much in control of the meeting while still maintaining a real conversation with each questioner. He is holding 18 of these town halls around the state this month. I was the “policy expert” at yesterday’s meeting and will travel upstate to Monroe for another Vitter event today.

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 1,000-page bill Congress is considering.

Questioners included 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 before 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, “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.

I was on a panel of three who spoke to 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, 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 the disconnects between the promises that President Obama is making about lowering costs, increasing quality, and expanding choice and competition and how that conflicts with the reality of independent analyses that show his reform plan would do precisely the opposite. And I warned that, while the administration may be backing down on insisting 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 absolutely understand that Senator Specter or HHS Secretary Sebelius would have received a very different reception before this crowd.

I head for Ohio later this week, then to Utah and Colorado next week and will report back to you as I witness American democracy in action.

Grace-Marie

 

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Health Policy Matters is a weekly newsletter containing summaries of timely and informative studies and articles on free-market health reform. It features a commentary by Grace-Marie Turner on the major developments and issues of the week as well as summaries of writings by participants in the Health Policy Consensus Group and other articles of interest from the health policy world, plus announcements of coming events. Health Policy Matters is published by the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit public policy organization specializing in information and education on health policy. For more information about the newsletter and our organization, please visit our website at www.galen.org.

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