(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2009.)
When it comes to the national health care debate, it turns out New Jersey isn’t very different from the rest of the country.
About 1,000 people packed Rowan University’s Wilson Hall on Monday for a raucous and sometimes-confrontational town hall meeting on President Barack Obama’s plan for revamping the national health care system.
U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, hosted the gathering as a question-and-answer session, much as other members of Congress have done around the nation. The gathering drew a vocal collection of people who appeared to come into the gathering with strong opinions already established.
On one hand, there were supporters, many of whom carried “Thank You” signs featuring the address of Obama’s Web site.
On the other hand, there were the critics, and of them there were many. Some, such as Josie Ladd, of Mantua Township, were respectful to Andrews despite opposing the plan.
“I don’t want to say how I feel about [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi because I am a Christian,” Ladd said. “But I trust you.”
Others, such as Chris Cugini, of Williamstown, and Fred Baran, of Cherry Hill, took a different tack by shouting and booing while others were speaking.
“You pay for it!” Cugini shouted at one woman regarding coverage for abortions, to which the woman responded, “You shut your mouth!”
Andrews and questioners spent about as much time speaking as they did getting drowned out by cheers, catcalls and applause.
“We’re all going to give each other a chance to finish,” Andrews said as the crowd cut off one speaker.
“I’d be happy to answer a question,” Andrews said after one of several speakers went on long diatribes without asking a question.
Obama’s plan calls for creating government-run insurance as an option for U.S. residents. It would create a government-regulated health insurance “exchange” in which people could comparison-shop for insurance and companies could not discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. It also would leave employer-provided insurance in place.
These options are just some of the tenets of the elaborate health care plan proposed by Obama.
Andrews began the session by attempting to summarize some of the plan’s goals. He said he likes the direction the president is going in and said he would determine how he will vote when he sees the final bill.
Andrews said he would not support a bill he thought would lead to a system run entirely by the government, much as is done in Canada and Australia.
“If I thought it was going to lead to a single-payer system, I wouldn’t vote for it,” Andrews said.
Many people refused to accept the prospect of Andrews voting for Obama’s proposal even if it does not lead to a Canada-style system.
“They keep chipping away, chipping away at our freedoms,” said Theresa Craig, of Washington Township, who prompted loud applause and cheering when she added, “If you vote for this bill, I can guarantee you my family, my friends, my neighbors, everybody I know will vote you out of office.”
Keith Cook, of Washington Township, pointed out the high cost — an estimated $1 trillion — of Obama’s plan and then cited financially struggling programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the U.S. Postal Service.
“How can you have any credibility saying you’re going to pay for this?” Cook said.
Harry Berry, of Stratford, argued similarly.
“The VA hospitals are deplorable,” Berry said. “The government’s running that. Give me a break. Give me a break.”
Those in favor of Obama’s plan said the critics were using scare tactics — such as comparing it to totalitarian socialist or communist states such as Nazi Germany — to turn people away from it. Vineland resident Teresita Fernandez became acquainted with such states growing up in Cuba, and she said Republican “fear tactics” are distorting a good plan.
“I’m very nervous because I am a person who escaped communism, and I know what communism and socialism is,” Fernandez said.
Lavender Frazier, of Logan Township, felt similarly.
“I feel that is very pathetic,” Frazier said, “because here there is a plan for everyone, and nobody wants it.”
The gathering, which began at 6 p.m., was scheduled to end at 8 p.m. but was still going on at 10 p.m., with Andrews standing on stage the entire time. So many people showed up that after Wilson Hall filled to its 880-person capacity, Rowan officials directed dozens of people to an overflow room where they could watch the meeting on a large video screen. Despite successfully preparing for the contingency of such a large crowd, some Rowan officials were still taken by surprise.
“There’s no way that I thought there’d be this many people,” Rowan communications director Joe Cardone said.