During the August recess, Congressmen Vic Snyder and Mike Ross held a town hall meeting at Arkansas Children's Hospital to discuss proposals for health care reform. News reports of similar meetings held across the country had begun to surface. Angry protestors, some affiliated with the Tea Party movement and other conservative organizations, shouted down some representatives. One organizer's document urged protestors to catch speakers off-guard and off-message.
Just a few minutes into the Aug. 5 meeting at Children's, it was evident that this meeting would be similar
Shouted questions interrupted the congressmen. They were challenged on their facts and sometimes accused of outright lies.
After a brief presentation, the floor was opened for questioning. The Timescaught some of these questions on video and posted a short video summary on YouTube later in the afternoon. After a day or so, the video caught fire. It has since been watched some 17,000 times and prompted more than 400 commments.
Television news shows ? including MSNBC's “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” Fox News, CNN and the Daily Show ? ran the video, in some cases in its entirety. It showed up on blogs like Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic Monthly's website and even an e-news letter from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
One reason for the video's popularity was the passion of those individuals captured on film. One woman broke down in tears as she told the congressmen, “I want my America back.” The video also captured a scene ? and sentiments ? emblematic of something going on all across the country. Our YouTube clip, shot on a tiny Flip camera, illustrated as other gatherings have that a relatively small, but very vocal group of people believe the road to improved health care leads to socialism. Their emotion ? and their volume ? has shifted the balance of power on the debate, polls show, and turned it to many more subjects than health care.
Ross and other Democrats have been criticized for losing control of the message. But what is the message? Snyder said there's been no direction from the national party or the White House on how to correct the misinformation that has clouded the debate.
Elisabeth Wright Burak, health policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said it's a constant struggle to keep the discussion focused on health care.
“There's no meaningful debate around the merits of what's on the table or what's being proposed. There are a lot of things in the current House bill that are really good for kids and families and it would be a major step forward in getting more folks insured and give them access to good health care and we're not hearing that discussion. In fact, we're hearing something very, very different and that's what's so frustrating to us is that we have a lot more to say that's very positive,” Burak said.
Olbermann said of the comments made by protestors in Little Rock, “We seem to have come full circle here. Paranoia and anger and ‘My America' ? what happened to the debate about health care? How did these people get convinced that they're going to be what, burned at the stake? Is that what they are expecting to have happen here?”
The Timesinterviewed four Arkansans who attended the event. We wanted to know more about who they were and what moved them. There were a few common threads: They distrust government, are conservative politically and each participated in the Tea Party protests held at the state Capitol on April 15. And they all think the U.S. health care system could be improved ? but not the way current legislation would do it.
‘I don't believe, sincerely, that the Constitution of the United States of America is going
to be upheld in this issue.'
Kim T. Maginn, 51, is an unemployed former kindergarten teacher who lives in Little Rock. She no longer works because of a bad back; she has had two back surgeries and is preparing for a third, perhaps next year. She said she's happy with the insurance that she has through her husband's job, although “it's not cheap.”
At the town hall, Maginn voiced some of the fears and arguments that have come to be associated with the anti-health care reform movement, namely that government involvement in the health care system would lead to rationing and that there's no need to fix a problem that only affects “15 percent of the population.” She also believes it is uncertain whether President Obama ? she calls him Mr. Obama ? is an American citizen.
Maginn is quick to acknowledge that some of the outrage being expressed at town hall meetings has little to do with health care reform.
“The anger, the frustration, the outrage is not just in relationship to the health care legislation,” she said. “Health care just happened to be that proverbial straw. The outrage is directed toward the unmitigated gall of this administration to intrude on our personal lives, our freedoms, our choices. It is in direct opposition to the Constitution,” she said.
Maginn said the Tea Party protests of April 15 provided the spark for her renewed interest in politics. Since then she has taken part in other events, organizing activities and offering to volunteer when needed. Now, she said, her focus is a Sept. 12 march on Washington, D.C., organized by the national Tea Party and a host of right-wing groups.
Distrust of big government and the current president are at the heart of Maginn's fears. She seems also to believe that there is something sinister in Obama's actions.
“It boils down to cronyism, sheer criminal proportions because of the people that he has installed in the White House,” she said. “If you look at those people [in the administration], they have a long list of sketchy dealings, been in jail, fugitives from the law, communists, socialists, it's all there in black and white.”
She cites, as she did at the town hall meeting, someone who has come to be the bogey-man of health care reform: Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of Rahm and advisor to Obama.
Emanuel is a pediatrician and medical ethicist who has published more than 200 articles in medical journals. Some of his work has focused on how decisions are made about who receives care when there is a scarcity of resources. The subject is debated every week in hospital ethics committees across the country. Critics have cherry-picked his work to make it seem as if he is justifying the rationing of care, and opponents of health reform have seized on this, labeling him the “deadly doctor.”
“He's proposing treatment rationing,” Maginn said.
When that characterization shows up on Fox News and reverberates through the conservative echo-chamber, it can be hard to combat.
Maginn believes that health care in the United States could be improved; she just doesn't trust Obama to do it. She also takes issue with other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, though she's not sure what type of reforms might fix the current system.
“I have no idea where anyone who proposes health care reform gets the idea that this is a constitutional right. It isn't, in my opinion,” she said.
Maginn, though she is happy to talk about her beliefs, believes the media have demonized those who have spoken out against Obama's health care plan.
“I'm really sick of being labeled a fear-monger. I'm absolutely disgusted with the name-calling, and if you don't agree with Mr. Obama then you're a racist. Well, I'm sick of that. The American people are gagged and bound, because we're going to be demonized as soon as we open our mouths or question any kind of legislation,” she said.
‘I pay my own health insurance'
Francis Jamell, 60, is a contractor who lives and works in Little Rock. He is currently uninsured, and seems to be proud of it. He is adamant in his skepticism about and mistrust of the government in general and liberals in particular.
“I can't stand lying, snake-in-the-grass politicians,” he said. “I don't know if it's the arrogance, the condescension, if it's being in office too long or the pseudo-concern, but it's the misrepresentation that's pissing people off. I don't like to be lied to. When someone like Ross said a quote about this being 19th in the world in terms of health care of industrialized nations, that's just an out-and-out lie.”
When Ross cited the figure at the town hall, some in the crowd yelled, “Liar!”
Ross was citing a University of Maine study that ranked the United States 19th in health care efficiency among developed countries.
For Jamell, like others at the event, this is a “big government” issue. He feels the government cannot, by its nature, run efficiently. It's the prospect of further government involvement, he said, that is creating some of the fear in people's minds.
“I haven't read the entire bill,” he said. “I researched what I could, and not from the wacko sites. But people are fed up because, well, let's take the simplest reason, natural mistrust of government. Two, there's a fear there. This is the attitude all across the country and what started it is what has happened since Barack Obama became president. Well it started with Bush, with the TARP money.” TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was approved by Congress to assist financial institutions in crisis over subprime mortgage defaults.
Jamell is a plain-talking, outspoken businessman. He said, as he told Congressmen Ross and Snyder, that he pays for his own health insurance costs out of pocket, including an eye surgery that he received from St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center in Little Rock. He believes if you have a problem, you pay for it.
“I cannot buy cheap catastrophic insurance,” he said. “If you go to the emergency room and it's not serious, then you're supposed to pay for that.”
But what if it is serious?
“Well,” he said, “it's called a liquidation of assets.”
When asked about the possibility of losing his home or business over a catastrophic health event, he seems indifferent.
“What this has been turned into is that this is something that we all need that we don't have to pay for. It's been turned into that over time by the Democrats. It's not a right. Everyone has health care; not everyone has health insurance,” he said.
Jamell said he is conservative, but not a Republican. He left the party after “Bob Dole sold his soul to the Democrats on the Brady Assault Weapons Ban.”
“My mother told me never trust your government, and a liberal is the bastard child of a communist,” he said.
When asked if he believed Obama was a communist, he backs off a bit, but not much.
“I wouldn't say he's a communist but he's ? let's take fascism and communism ? he's aiding and abetting that idealism. He's no Mao Tse-tung or anything like that, but he's doing the bidding, knowingly or unknowingly, is what he's doing,” Jamell said.
But Jamell does think something should be done to help those who need health insurance and can't afford it. He believes that allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines is the answer. It's an idea put forward by conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute, which has said it would help lower prices. Opponents say that would benefit only young, healthy people; those who need more care would end up paying higher premiums, if they could get coverage at all.
Jamell believes some kind of health care reform bill will pass. If it doesn't, it “will be because of wussy Republicans,” Jamell said. “They say, well, we want to be bipartisan, well I don't believe in bi-partisanship. Not at all. Compromise is failure. Why would you want to compromise with your enemy? And liberals are my enemy. They kill babies. Why would I want to do business with anybody that kills babies?”
Jamell did compliment Snyder, however. “I respect any man or woman that will face angry crowds face to face, just like Claire McCaskill or Arlen Specter. Now, Blanche Lincoln is hiding under Mark Pryor's skirt. He's not up for re-election, so he doesn't have to answer for shit, so that tells you where he stands.” Lincoln has since decided to hold public town hall meetings.
‘Tort reform is number one'
Susan Jones, 63, is a semi-retired education consultant. She was a high school teacher for many years and now teaches as an adjunct professor at four universities. She's also the wife of a hospital administrator. Her husband, Charles Smith, is the president of Arkansas Heart Hospital, but she says that has no effect on her views.
Initially, she was difficult to pin down politically.
“What I'm trying to say is we have a government now that is so into special interests and favors that there is corruption that is astounding,” Jones said. “We're talking about corruption on both sides. They are so in bed with the pharmaceuticals and with the insurance companies, and with big labor and big business, they don't make decisions based on what solves the problem. They make decisions based on what's going to get them re-elected, what's going to help them maintain power.”
Jones, who called herself a conservative, believes there are big problems with the health care system, but said government involvement is not the answer. She suggested another solution to the congressmen when given the opportunity: Tort reform.
“Tort reform is number one,” she said. “Every doctor or every medical person I've ever known panics about it.”
Like Maginn, the Tea Party protests on April 15 rekindled her interest in politics.
“I have never got involved directly in politics since the 1970s. The first time I've ever demonstrated in all my life was when I went to the Capitol for the first Tea Party event. It was an opportunity to go and say ‘stop these deficits,' ” she said.
Jones is insured through the state of Illinois teacher retirement system and will roll over to Medicare when the time comes.
“I think Medicare is successful in that people are relatively content and dependent upon it,” she said. “But there's an awful lot of waste that can be improved.”
‘I want my America back!'
It could be argued that Colleen Shoemaker, 55, of Bauxite, has become the face of opposition to health reform. News stations, 24-hour cable networks, and even the Daily Show have shown the Timevideo of her clutching the microphone and tearfully pleading, “I want my America back.”
Shoemaker believes the 44th president is leading the country toward socialism. He may be a citizen, she said, but he is not “an American patriot.”
“Just because of all these czars that Obama's got behind him and because of all the takeovers of GM and the banks. Firing a CEO is not a president's job. That's a board of directors' job,” she said. “Now with this wanting to reform health care and turn it over to the government, that's the final straw. I think if this gets passed, there's no turning back and we're just in for socialism.”
Shoemaker is unemployed and has insurance provided by her husband's employer. She said there really is a problem with the current health care system, but that tax credits and health savings accounts are the way to go.
“The people that really do need insurance, I'm all for helping them and there's got to be a way they can figure that out without socializing our health care system,” she said. “I'm concerned like looking throughout the world, at health care systems that are socialized, they're a mess. And I don't want our health insurance industry to turn into that.”
Shoemaker said she gets most of her information from Fox News. Glen Beck is one of her favorite television hosts and she listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. However, she's not just parroting the ideas of Beck and Limbaugh when she talks about health care, she said; her ideas are her own.
I asked her about her statement that she wanted her country back. She said she feels she has lost her sense of security.
“When I sing the national anthem, I used to cry with pride and now I cry because I'm sad because this country is just not ? I don't know how to explain it ? I don't feel like I can go out and be myself anymore. I feel like you have to watch every word you say because you don't know who you're talking to,” she said.
It's a feeling that set in after Barack Obama took office, she said.
“I'm a George Bush fan. To me, he was my John Wayne,” she said. “And I was a big Ronald Reagan fan. Bill Clinton, he was a Democratic president, and I didn't vote for him, but for the whole time he was in office, I never felt like this. I never felt this disenfranchised from my country.”