Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Democracy on display: Last night's public meeting on health care

We joined a large number of St. Paul's members at a public meeting with our local member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello at Charlottesville High School last night to talk about the health care proposals before Congress. The meeting, raucous at times, gave full display to the many perspectives, hopes, dreams and fears on this extraordinarily complex issue.

I was much impressed by Rep. Perriello's command of the details and his disarming manner. When one side or the other began to boo, his gestures brought calm. "In the shadow of Jefferson, we know how to do dissent," he said at the beginning of the evening, a reminder to let everyone be heard. There were no disruptions of the sort that have marred other public meetings around the country.

Those who listened closely heard a Congressman who has followed the nuances of the issue and is not allowing slogans to sway his vote. He kept reminding us that he is looking for a bill that will work, that will lower health care costs and insurance premiums and extend coverage to those who don't have it. The final proposal "will rise or fall on whether it brings down premiums for middle-class families and businesses," he said. He agreed in part, and disagreed in part, with virtually every health care proposal put forward in the room last night, and he clearly stated his reasons why.

The meeting was a reminder of just how polarized this issue has become and how tough it is to be a moderate. Speakers lined up more than an hour before the start of the meeting. We heard from cancer patients and doctors, from those who distrust government and those who have been dropped by their insurance companies. We heard from defenders of insurance companies and skeptics of government programs. We heard from people who have read the current bill in detail, and we heard from someone who wanted to talk about missile defense and North Korea. We heard many viewpoints. I won't say that everyone listened respectfully -- at times the meeting resembled a basketball game with rooters for opposing sides. But those who spoke got their say.

Those who listened carefully heard very human stories of illness and economic calamity, stories of doctors and nurses doing their best in the trenches, stories about fear of getting sick, and stories from those who fear government may botch this and make it worse.

One speaker, Mary Bennett, thanked Rep. Perriello for the meeting, and thanked the crowd for being there to "speak our different truths to each other -- we are all in this democracy together." Let me add my Amen to that.

Photo by Matthew Rosenberg/The Daily Progress


jfmiller28 said...

Thanks for the nice write-p, Jim. Do you have any sense of which proposals might have some broad consensus in Charlottesville or which ones are dead in the water?

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Good to hear from you and thanks for being such a regular reader of this blog.

My sense of Charlottesville on this issue is quite limited, and I don't think a public meeting like that one is a representative sample. My hunch is that Charlottesville, like most places in America, are anxious about the economy, anxious about health care, and anxious about Congress getting this right. My hunch also is that most folks are feeling a bit out-to-sea with all the jargon like "single payer" and "public option" and all that. The proposals are complex with many moving parts.

As for the public meeting, many who were there got there because an organization got them there. They came with an agenda and slogans.There were many voices favoring a government financed "public option" along side of private insurance. And there were many voices expressing reservations that government can or should do that. No consensus in the room, nor would I have expected any.

I don't envy Rep. Perriello or other members of Congress their task maneuvering through this thicket. Let's at least give them credit for trying.