Congressman Hank Johnson’s health-care reform town hall meeting drew a diverse crowd–men, women, young, elderly, conservatively dressed, unconventionally styled, and representing a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.
It was far too large a crowd for the 500-seat Cole Auditorium at Georgia Perimeter College’s Clarkston campus. Even the overflow room, a gymnasium that holds about 1,500 people, filled quickly, leaving hundreds of people milling around the campus holding heated discussions, passing out fliers, soliciting names for petitions or continuing to seek a way into the meeting.
Nationally, such meetings have drawn people with strong feeling about health-care reform and some have erupted into shouting matches and fights. The meeting Aug. 10 on the Clarkston campus was relatively civil. Although there were raised voices, booing and applause during the presentations, no one was escorted out by security—a warning that was repeated throughout the meeting.
A panel that included a number of health-care professionals made presentations before Johnson, who represents Georgia’s 4th congressional district, took questions from the audience.
Grady Hospital President and CEO Michael Young, who previously worked in health care in New York, explained why his experiences have led him to believe that America’s health-care ills require a national solution. “In New York, we had one of the most generous systems in the country. People moved to New York and were immediately covered by our health-care plan,” he recalled. “Soon people were moving to New York for health care in huge numbers.” It did not take long, he said, to overwhelm the system.
Young said his experience at Grady—where in the past year he has seen a 15-percent increase in inpatients who cannot pay and a 30-percent increase in outpatients who cannot pay—has confirmed the need for a comprehensive health plan.
Audience members were encouraged to write questions on forms provided by the congressman’s office with a promise that the office would get back to them with answers. A relative few were allowed to ask questions from the floor.
An audience member expressed concern that no final version of the bill under discussion exists yet. “Can y’all come up with a final version of the bill and then you come back here to hold another town hall meeting?” he asked. Johnson said he would like to do that, but “things happen quickly in Washington.” He added, “If it’s possible to come back, I will.”
One speaker asked about a health care advisory board provided in the plan. “If the board denies me coverage, what is the appeals process?” he asked. One of Johnson’s aides answered that the purpose of an advisory board is to set minimum health-care coverage standards–not maximum ones.
Another speaker said that those who fear that government will limit access to health care should know that insurance companies are doing that now. He explained that his wife gave birth to their child by Caesarian section. “The doctor said she needed to stay in the hospital another day, but the insurance refused to pay for another day. We couldn’t afford to pay so she had to go home. You’re looking at a victim of health-care rationing,” the man said, holding his infant high above his head.
To an audience member who shouted, “Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to create a national health program?” Johnson, a lawyer, calmly quoted the Preamble to the Constitution that states among the purposes of forming the U.S. government “to promote the general welfare.”
“That’s what we’re doing here,” Johnson said. “We’re promoting the general welfare. Legally we’re on solid ground.”
As panel members made their closing remarks, panelist Sandra Ford, director of the DeKalb County Board of Health, commented, “Insurance companies alone did not create this problem. Doctors alone did not create it. Hospitals alone did not create it. We were all involved in creating the problem; it’s going to take all of us working together to solve it.”