BROOKLYN, N.Y. — October 20, 2009.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” the union leader said.
Ed Luster of the Communications Workers of America was referring to Congressman Mike McMahon’s (D, NY-13) second town hall meeting on health care reform, held Tuesday, October 20. The meeting took place at the Shore Hill Community Center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and contrasted starkly with the first town hall, held two weeks ago on Staten Island. What stood out wasn’t what happened but what didn’t — or who didn’t. The “Tea Party”, anti-reform activists who shout down anyone they disagree with, weren’t present. And so the meeting was marked by a civility that, at times, was downright cordial. Not that McMahon didn’t hear some passionate arguments.
McMahon’s health care town hall began with a power point presentation outlining the various bills before the Senate and the House, including HR 3200. After the slide show, anyone wishing to speak was given two minutes to do so. It was clear immediately that the speakers were overwhelmingly for a health care package that includes a strong public option. And many of those who supported the public option also spoke in favor of HR 676, the John Conyers bill that would establish a single payer system or “Medicare for all.”
In the audience were a number of labor leaders including Luster, who is president of CWA Local 1102 (Staten Island), Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981), and Joyce Patrella, executive vice president of CWA Local 1110. The leaders were not alone. Labor rank and file filled the hall, perhaps in response to an appeal from the Central Labor Council. The faithful wore union t-shirts and many cradled signs in their laps — in response to McMahon asking people to be careful “not to poke someone’s eye out” by waving signs.
The first speaker, a CWA member named Sam, asked McMahon if the rhetoric of those who oppose the public option — rhetoric filled with dire warnings of impending “communism” and “death panels” — contributed anything to the ongoing discussion.
“Do you feel this rhetoric has any productive value in achieving real health care reform,” he asked.
McMahon responded with an unequivocal No. Yet the congressman has not taken a position on health care reform.
CWA member Steve Lawton told McMahon, “I believe that it’s your obligation to represent the people and so that you should take the burden of health care costs off the people and put it back on the employers.”
United Auto Workers member George Albro also made a direct appeal:
“We need you, Congressman, to side with the people, not the insurance companies. We need you for a strong public option, like your colleagues in New York.”
Albro mentioned former congressman Vito Fossella’s antipathy towards working people and told McMahon that “We rejoiced in your election — so you could vote differently.”
McMahon said that he has voted “differently” and is proud of his voting record. But his position on single payer — he does not support it — came under fire early on.
A UAW member who identified herself as a “senior” said, “I believe that there’s only one – and that’s single payer – that does for all.”
Doug Biviano, a progressive who recently lost a bid for for a city council seat, spoke about the Weiner Amendment. Congressman Anthony Weiner’s amendment would convert HR 3200 into HR 676 — single payer health care.
Biviano asked McMahon, “Are you willing to lead and join with Anthony Weiner and do that or are you just going to sit in the middle and just kind of drift with the insurance companies? Are you going to show some leadership? That’s what we need.”
McMahon commented that he liked how Biviano characterized HR 676 as “Medicare for all” but said he would not support it or the Weiner Amendment. Although pressured by Biviano, McMahon refused to cite any specific reasons for not supporting single payer.
MoveOn organizer Kathleen Kelly told McMahon that she is being foreclosed, having exhausted her savings on medical bills. After recovering from a serious illness, Kelly is now trying to hold on to her home. She urged McMahon to stand up for people in her situation.
Rosalie Caliento lost a cousin to pancreatic cancer — her cousin was unable to get proper treatment due to inadequate health care coverage. “I miss her greatly,” Caliento said as she held up a photo of her cousin.
A Brooklyn man named Gerard Perry identified himself as a member of an organization opposing illegal immigrants. Perry asked if HR 3200 would provide health care to the undocumented. McMahon said that it would not.
As was the case at the Staten Island town hall, held earlier this month, McMahon was accompanied by some medical experts. He asked them to address the crowd.
Responding to an audience member who asked “what’s the rush?”, Dr. Vincent Calamia, of Staten Island University Hospital, said that nothing is being “rushed”, reform is overdue. He praised McMahon for being “meticulous” in gathering information before taking a position. He said he did not know what the congressman’s position would ultimately be.
Dr. Harold Eichler, the second expert speaker, complained about treatment delays resulting from dealing with insurance company and HMO denials. Eichler was emphatic about the need for change.
At several points in the event, McMahon cited the cost of reform as a stumbling block. One of the speakers, Carol from Bay Ridge, addressed this issue.
“All of this could be paid for, everybody is worrying about how we can pay for this, if we get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no reason for us to be there. None at all,” she said.
Speaking in support of single payer, Dr. Katrina John, a resident in the Maimonides emergency room said, “I support more than the public option. Obviously, I support the single payer system because I was trained in that system, I worked for several years in that system, I’ve been a patient in that system and I have many family and friends who have received life-saving treatment in that system.”
John added that, “As a doctor I have a moral standard, for me, nothing should come between my treatment of a patient. And certainly, it should be what’s best for that patient and never should it be a financial incentive or profit motive or anything of that sort.”
She sees no place for profit in health care.
“I think until profit can be taken out of medicine in this country then we will never be able to move forward and the health care that everybody would like to have would not be achieved. Profit is not necessary for excellent health care,” she said.
A number of clergy and lay people from various social concerns committees were present.
Craig Miller, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, said that, “Churches are impacted by this as they see the cost of health care for their staff, particularly for pastors, rising.”
Miller told McMahon that his health care costs are a great burden on his congregation. He said that health care reform is urgently needed by everyone and that it “is a basic human right” — not just in China but here in the U.S.
CWA’s Sarah Brandston, said that “This is not about dollars and cents, it’s a moral issue.”
Brandston argued a small percentage of the population has the bulk of the nation’s wealth while many can’t afford proper health care.
“Not to deny the great American dream of everybody being rich one day, but why don’t we just live a decent life?”
A United Federation of Teachers (UFT) member echoed this sentiment: “There is nothing rushed about health care in this country being taken up … it has become an absolute emergency for the middle class.”
“We do have to have a public option. Just take a look at the profits of the pharmaceutical and the health care and insurance companies while many people are losing their jobs and their coverage and many companies are going under, they are getting profits after profits after profits,” she added.
The human cost of insurance companies profiting while many can’t afford coverage was underscored by Dr. Wisly Augustin, an opthalmologist, who told the town hall that one of his patients lost her eyesight as a result of being unable to afford health care.
“I don’t think anyone in this hall would like to see themselves losing their eyesight simply because they don’t have any insurance coverage to seek medical care,” he said.
A business analyst with 25 years experience in health care said: “The Post Office is pretty good and that is a delivery system that competes with Fedex and UPS and they co-exist. So, the idea of a public option is viable.”
“We do need it now … go make it as good as you can, make it the best you can, don’t demand that it be perfect,” he added.
The final tally told the story: 32 people spoke in favor of health care reform with a strong public option — and the majority of those supported single payer. 8 people opposed the public option and 3 people spoke about other issues: illegal immigrants, stopping cancer, better regulation of insurance carriers.
Scott Klein, president of the American Heritage Democratic Organization of Bay Ridge, expressed the sentiments of many present when he told Rep. McMahon that “We need you to stand on the side of, at a minimum, the public option.”
“We elected you for a reason. We elected you to stand up on an issue like this. And we need you to do that. This is the most important issue that faces us today,” he said.