Supporters and protesters turn out in force in K’hook
KINDERHOOK—By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, half an hour before Congressman Scott Murphy (D-20th) was scheduled to arrive, the overflow parking area at the Golden Harvest farm store on Route 9 was nearing capacity. Of the crowd of about 250 people who showed up, those who came to support reforming the way healthcare is provided and paid for in the U.S. gathered initially on the north side of the lot; those who oppose changing the current healthcare system gathered on the south, leaving about eight feet between their camps. Now and then verbal challenges erupted from one side or the other.
Mr. Murphy, a Glens Falls businessman elected in March to fill the seat vacated when Kirsten Gillibrand was named U.S. senator, intended Saturday to continue a policy introduced by Ms. Gillibrand, who appeared regularly throughout the district at what she dubbed “Congress on Your Corner” events. But this session was preceded by national news coverage of noisy confrontations in other districts, where opponents of the healthcare reform shouted down House members as they tried to speak to the public.
Local Democrats issued an email request Friday for supporters of healthcare reform to show at the August 8 event, saying that opponents were being organized by the national Republican Party in an effort to block discussion of the issue.
In the Golden Harvest parking lot Bob Wood of Clifton Park, an Albany suburb that is part of Mr. Murphy’s district, volunteered the information that his presence was “not organized or paid for by anybody.” He said he had come to voice his opposition to federal government involvement in healthcare because his wife comes from England, where her relatives had experienced delays in receiving medical treatment. He said he had learned of the protest by “word of mouth.” None of the people standing with him lived in Columbia County, although some of the opponents who spoke later did identify themselves as county residents.
Neither Congress nor the administration has settled on a healthcare reform bill, but Mr. Murphy has expressed support for the overall goal of reform. Opponents carried signs Saturday demanding that the government stop efforts to change healthcare, while supporters, who appeared to comprise a slim majority, waved placards in favor of at least two different approaches to healthcare reform. But as soon as Mr. Murphy arrived, the lines between the sides dissolved and people pressed in around him making it impossible to tell, except for the signs, whose side anybody was on.
The congressman said he knew people wanted to talk about healthcare, but he wanted first to introduce his family—his two young children, two nieces and his wife, Jen Hogan—and then recount what he’s done in his first 100 days in office. His mention of the federal economic stimulus plan was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos. “I think our economy is in a much better place than it was six months ago,” he said, though he quickly added, “We are by no means in a good place.”
He said he has been working with small businesses and farmers around the district, citing his assistance to Local Ocean, the new seafood farming business in the county, which is dealing with federal food industry regulations. He also cited his support for credit card reform that restricts card companies from arbitrarily raising rates. For that and his vote against building more F-22 military jets, which the Pentagon says it does not need, he received applause. His recap of efforts to help dairy farmers hit hard by low milk prices was greeted with polite attention.
Having completed his preamble, Mr. Murphy turned to healthcare, and immediately there were shouts of protest from the crowd. But then and throughout the next hour and 20 minutes without a break he reminded people that he would allow them to speak at his microphone and would respond to their questions.
“The United States is able to provide the best healthcare in the world for the people who can afford it,” he said. But when he went on to say that between 40 and 50 million people in this country lack healthcare coverage, reform opponents booed and shouted.
Smiling and calm, Mr. Murphy continued, saying he wanted to outline his goals for healthcare reform. He started by saying the nation already has decided that “we won’t let you bleed to death” for lack of insurance. Based on that foundation, his first principle for improved healthcare is “choice,” which he said meant that an “individual should have the right to keep their [health] insurance if they want to, or to get a new plan if they want to.”
He said that everyone should have to have “some sort of plan,” a requirement he likened to auto insurance. That didn’t sit well with opponents, but the outcry was muted, perhaps because of the heat of the midday sun or because most people in the crowd seemed intent on hearing what he had to say.
He said his second principle was making insurance “affordable for every American.” He said Congress could cut costs by requiring that doctors, hospitals and insurance companies all use the same “forms and codes.” This type of standardization would mean “doctors don’t have to have fleets of people dealing with insurance companies,” a statement that elicited only applause.
The congressman also recommended changing Medicare reimbursement formulas so that doctors and hospitals in rural communities get a greater share. And he called for changing the basis on which government healthcare payments are calculated, so that doctors are paid for treating patients rather than for ordering tests. But the point that drew the warmest response was his support for prohibiting the insurance company practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
When one opponent demanded that he stand up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mr. Murphy offered an example of a recent vote on which he had bucked his party’s leadership.
The thorniest issue in the debate both in Congress and at Saturday’s event involved Mr. Murphy’s support of the proposal for health insurance offered by the government. He said the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only about 3% of Americans would choose that option and that he would not support this type of “public option” unless it was “on a level playing field” with private plans. He also repeated his belief that people must be able to choose private insurance plans and to keep the insurance they have now.
Mr. Murphy has critics on both sides of the political spectrum for his stance. While some fear further government involvement in healthcare, others pressed for a single-payer system, in which the government is the sole provider of insurance. The congressman said that single-payer is not under consideration and that he would not vote for it if it did come to the House floor.
As people in the long queue waited patiently for a chance to speak, one man condemned all government programs, including the popular Cash for Clunkers initiative that Congress funded with an additional $2 billion last week. The man looked surprised when Mr. Murphy replied that he voted against the additional funding because he wanted more information about how the initial $1 billion had been spent.
Between speakers, the congressman briefly responded to points raised and tried to dispel some of the myths about the bills under consideration. He said the proposals would not cover illegal immigrants and would not permit the government to encourage older people to die. On the latter claim, he said the bills want to make it possible for doctors to receive reimbursement for time they spend talking about end-of-life issues with patients. Such discussions are “not mandated” in the bills, said Mr. Murphy, adding that he supported the provision because “I think doctors should not have to take time off to discuss this.”
As the people continued to speak, more of them praised the congressman for providing the opportunity to address him, agreeing with an earlier statement he’d made that this type of spirited interaction is an essential component of American democracy. But by that time many in the crowd had drifted away to pick up some fruit or doughnuts at the store, and the only audible interruptions came from noisy customers and a car alarm in the parking lot.