Adam Schiff Adam Schiff

Health care showdown

Alhambra forum attempts to bridge public opinion gap on Obama’s health care reform plans

By John Seeley 08/13/2009

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Though anticipation of conflict and even violence ran high among both “pro” and “anti” camps in the run-up to Congressman Adam Schiff’s “Town Hall” meeting on health care reform Tuesday evening, the event — while spirited, raucous and at times almost drowned out by jeering protesters — ultimately allowed some facts about pending legislation to be clarified and much steam to be vented.

The meeting was originally planned for Alhambra Civic Center’s library auditorium, which seats less than 200, but Schiff’s staff, sensing the broad and intense interest, shifted to an open-air forum on City Hall lawn and Second Street, blocked off for the evening. An hour before the slated 7 p.m. start time, the available space was almost elbow-to-elbow, filled by a crowd estimated at 1,500 to 2,500, almost half of them with pro or con signs and placards, plus a sprinkling of US flags or “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake banners.

While in the pre-event hour the two camps seemed equal in numbers, health reform opponents had the edge in sound (louder) and signage (larger and bolder). Among the mix of protesters were Republican activists, libertarians and followers of Lyndon Larouche, who carried posters tacking a Hitler mustache over President Obama’s lip. Central themes in the opposition camp were “Unfair to Seniors,” the tax burden, general government incompetence and the specter of euthanizing Grandma to cut costs.

In spite of a notice on Schiff’s Web site that admission would be limited to district residents, many attendees came from outside the district — an El Sereno coffee salesman and a Simi Valley housewife to protest the proposed changes, a West LA nurse and a Tujunga actress to support them.

Schiff introduced himself, prompting one bearded 60-ish attendee to punch the air several times with middle finger extended, and led off the defense of health reform legislation with a strong offense against the status quo. “Plan A,” he said, “leaves 50 million uninsured and many underinsured,” forces Americans “to choose between medical bills and mortgages,” and plays a part in “two-thirds of all bankruptcies.” Moreover, he added, the current system delivers poor overall health results, leaving the US behind most developed countries in life expectancy and child mortality rates. And care quality aside, he asserted, health costs are “going to bankrupt the country, just the way they’ve bankrupted many families.”

A panel of doctors and medical experts, moderated by Dr. Bruce Hensel, UCLA medical school professor and health and science reporter for KNBC-TV, added support for reform from varied perspectives. Dr. Benjamin Chu, president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan's Southern California Region, stressed the need to move from crisis-based care to rewarding health outcomes — “reward prevention, early detection, success in chronic disease management.” He also supported mandatory coverage: “A system where only the sick have insurance won’t work,” he said  Jerry Flanagan, health advocate for Consumer Watchdog, emphasized that pending legislation would stop unfair cancellations by cost-cutters at insurance companies: “When the bills come in — that’s when they start looking at your chart,” he said, “comparing it to the application, looking for minor inconsistencies.” The reform bills, he said, will protect against opportunistic retroactive policy cancellations by making it impossible to use the “pre-existing condition” excuse.

He questioned opponents’ complaints about the cost burdens of universal coverage: “We have universal health care now,” he added, “except that it’s for the gravely ill and dying at the ERs, where it’s most expensive and inefficient.”    

Endocrinologist Dr. Francine Kaufman, vice-president of Medtronic and professor of pediatrics at USC, spoke about her work with diabetic kids at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, noting that the system will shift them from good care to none: “Most of them will walk into adulthood without access to health care because they’ll age out of entitlement or their parents’ coverage.”

Whether the panelists’ critique of the status quo changed many minds is doubtful. Schiff opened his presentation by asking who was there to support the legislation, who was there to oppose it, and who had come to learn more and decide. The responses were prolonged roaring in the first two cases, followed by scattered murmurs from the few undecideds. One departing protester, who had been yelling frequently at the speakers, was asked if he’d heard anything to change his opinion. “I’m more convinced than ever that I’m right,” he replied.

Schiff too is convinced he’s right and — despite what he described as a “wild and woolly” meeting with strong and spirited opposition Tuesday — believes his constituents are on the same page. Communications to his office, Schiff explained, are fairly evenly divided, but the opposition “is substantially outside my district — my constituents are very much in support.”

Newly elected US Rep. Judy Chu, D-El Monte, will be holding another town meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, at City of Hope medical center, 1500 E. Duarte Road, Duarte. See Chu’s Web site, chu.house.gov, for updates.

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