We went to Representative Peter Stark's townhall in Alameda, CA today, which was to start at 12:00
noon. Before I left I dusted off my Obama button,
the one with a story behind it. I don't think I'd worn it since the Inauguration.
Realizing we might not get in otherwise, we arrived outside of City
Hall at 10:30 AM to already find about 20 people. Some were setting
up a booth to hand out health care information and support stickers,
and a bunch were "yellow shirts", members of
CalPirg, all wearing identical shirts saying "Health Care Reform Now!".
Obviously, we had come to the left place.
By 10:45 AM there had to be 50 people, some with signs. One in
particular was excellent: "GRANDMA WANTS HEALTH REFORM". Cars started
honking as they went by as people stood with signs on the street corner.
By 11:00 AM I'd say 100 people had shown up, by 11:15 150, and when they
opened the doors to let us in at 11:30 there was a line down the steps
of City Hall, down the sidewalk and around the corner.
They only let 147 people in (and about 30 people had to stand), so as
this diary reports, many were left outside. Fortunately we were wise enough to move close to the doors early, so we had no problem getting in. Unfortunately, a couple of very obnoxious health care opponents, one with Lyndon Larouche material, one espousing Libertarian dogma, and both repeatedly making claims about 'Nazi Health Boards', Nazi this and Nazi that, were near the door too. An older lady who claimed to have lost relatives to the Nazis was not, shall we say, amused.
Well, we were there partly to offset the crazies, and, by Jove, here
they were, stark raving mad just as advertised!
Fortunately no violence ensued.
Stark's staff let us in in groups of five, and gave each of us a number.
I started to scream "I am not a number, I am a free man!", but
as I was given number 15, not number 6, I thought better of it.
Nothing much happened until Congressman Stark arrived about 15 minutes
late. He gave no speech and almost no introduction, but went
immediately to questions, drawing numbers randomly and having the
person holding that number ask the next question.
I did not know that Congressman Stark was, in fact, one of the authors
of H.R. 3200 (pdf), the House's Health Care Reform Bill, until he mentioned it. Which I suppose at least partially explains why he was particularly up on the details of the bill, and was never at a loss for words or an explanation during all the questioning.
About 20 people were given a chance to ask questions; unfortunately I
was not among them (and of course I had the best question...). Here
is a summary of the questions (very paraphrased) and Stark's answers
(again, very paraphrased).
Q1: What about the Kucinich amendment to allow states to provide
A1: Leadership promises a vote on that amendment.
Q2: What about insuring competition (i.e., public plan)?
A2: Agree. Supports public plan, idea is to promote competition.
As an aside, almost 1/2 of Alameda County uses Kaiser (HMO).
Q3: Biggest problem, having canvassed, is misinformation. How do
we combat it?
A3: Talk to people you know in other states and districts that don't
have Congresspeople who are definitely supporting reform, and convince
them to contact their representatives.
Q4: Why are their different bills. Why does President have a bill?
A4: President wants a bill to provide quality and affordable health
care. We provided such a bill in the House. It will achieve 97%
affordable coverage in five years.
Q5; Yield to African American woman who has been screaming. She
is wearing buttons that say 'Bush is dumb.' 'Obama is dumber', with
the (now expected) Nazi symbolism.
She starts ranting on about the Hemlock Society, Nazi euthanasia,
bailing out Wall Street while we are killing Grandma.
A5: Stark patiently explains what the provisions for end-of-life
health care consultation actually mean and are intended to do. My
level of respect for him goes up another notch. 'The bill gives
no authority over Grannie to the government.'
Q6: Will you choose the public plan?
A6: Yes, as soon as I am able to. The bill prevents people with
existing plans to use it for three years (to get it going and give
people with no insurance first dibs).
Q7: How does the bill help prevent insurance companies from
continuing to exploit poeple?
A7: Bill prevents a lot of exploitation, like pre-existing
Q8: What about small business?
A8: Small business up to $40000 payroll exempt. Up to $????? will
get a 50% tax credit. Cites number of small businesses eligible for
this tax credit in Alameda County.
Q9: Vague question about employer cost savings.
A9: Vague answer about employer cost savings due to slowdown in rate
of increase in payouts for medical procedures.
Q10: What about community health centers that provide free care now?
What about nurses?
A10: There will be less uninsured. CHC's provide another service:
providing health care workers who can communicate on non-English, and
this is valuable.
There is a provision in the bill for nurse practitioners working
under a physician.
Q11: What about provisions for public health?
A11: There is money to train primary care physicians and send them
to rural areas.
Q12: How will future generations pay for health care, given
the ridiculous continuing rise in costs?
A12: Young people will be paying a little more, older people a
little less, under the bill. (I don't think he understood the
question, although it was mostly rhetorical).
Q13: How can the public plan be self-sufficient?
A13: It is mandated to be so. No government subsidy. It must
charge enough premiums to cover its expenses. Initial funding will
be provided by government so it can jump-start; this must be paid
back within 10 years.
Q14: Long single-payer rant.
A14: Again, a very patient and detailed reply about why, although
he is in favor of it, single payer is not politically possible
because a) no way to pay for it and b) America is not a country that
will accept rapid change.
Q15: General Federal budget question.
A15: Congress has ((once again)) passed PayGo. He voted against it
because it exempted defense spending ((I didn't know this)). He'd
love to take money from defense and put it towards health care. No
one in Congress 'wants' to waste taxpayer money, they just all think
their particular projects are important and deserve money. North
Dakota gets a billion dollars in farm subsidies while CD 13, with
as much population, gets $1400 in farm subsidies.
Q16: Why are illegal aliens not covered?
A16: Not politically possible. Maybe a solution in immigration
Q17: Five minute rant about HR 3200, composition of Obama's
advisors, Nazis, bioethics equaling euthanasia, comparative
A17: ((Stark is one cool dude)). Again he patiently and diligently
explains the purpose of the Comparative Effectiveness provisions (to
gather data that doesn't currently exist to allow people to make
better decisions). He gives two examples: Lipitor vs ????, and
prostate cancer: radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery? We just don't
know. Goal to provide useful data so physicians can better prescribe
what is best.
Q18: A rant about 'IMAC Board Composition', 'Nazi Board', Rahm and
Ezekiel Emmanual, other Nazi sympathizers.
A18: "I've encountered very few Jews who support the Nazis!"
There were a couple of disruptions during the Q/A by health care
opponents (who numbered 8 out of 147, or about 5% -- Stark asked for a
show of hands), and resulting counterdisruptions, but all in all it
went pretty smoothly.
I enjoyed myself immensely watching the health-care opponents come
off as complete and utter asses. Surely there are people with
principled, intelligent objections to the current health care reform
effort, but they were definitely not present at this townhall.
I have never been to a Congressional townhall before, or anything
similar. But as far as experiences go, it was well worth it. I
learned almost nothing I didn't already know about the health care
bill, but I did learn a lot about Peter Stark. He's not my
Congressperson (Barbara Lee is), but he has my respect.