Friday, September 18, 2009

Obama Health Care Rally September 17, 2009

First, let me welcome people new to this blog. Like a good number of cyberspace veterans, I have a personal website. I will probably update it this month as I am getting more involved in Metro Washington Mensa. I'm even running for office. If you want to meet some friends of mine, just come to St. Mark's Episcopal Church some Sunday. I am involved in other things as well, but that is a place that is open year round and welcomes outsiders. Artomatic also welcomes everybody, but it is open only for about six weeks.

I got up around 6:30 AM. I had planned for 6:00, but I didn't set the alarm when I went to bed at 10:30 PM. Wednesday evening at St. Mark's was important and good. My attendance at the Obama rally, while a good idea, was hardly a must.

After having breakfast, I checked a few websites and even made a comment on Rand Simberg's. I then got ready to leave. I left home around 8:30 AM. I found a free parking spot about a block from the College Park Metro station. I then caught the shuttle to Comcast Center. I arrived on campus shortly after 9:00 AM. I ran into Igor Eberstein and chatted a bit about NASA. I wandered around campus trying to find the general admission line. I finally found the Comcast Center entrance with no line outside around 9:45. Some people told me that people began arriving around 4:00 AM and formed a line at 5:00. In the Comcast Center I was settled in a seat by 9:51. There appeared to be lots of empty seats at this time in what appears to be general seating -- see photos.

While waiting for the formal rally to start, I gathered a number of impressions:

  • There appeared to a formal University of Maryland presence with a band and cheerleaders.
  • Staff told me that at least some of the empty seats were reserved for ticket holders.
  • At 10:33 the crowd did the "wave." Some chanted "Yes we can."
  • Some volunteers are now taking empty seats in the section I was told was for ticket holders.
  • SEIU people begin chanting. One man shouts "What do we want?" The crowd responds "Health care!" The man then shouts "When do we want it?" The crowd responds "Now."
  • Around 10:45 I was interviewed by a student working for the student newspaper. I gave her the AIAA spiel, commented that the crowd seems enthusiastic and positive and hinted at the complexity of my own political views.
  • At 10:57 I noted that the seats in the section next to me were now more filled than empty.

At 11:01 the sign says "Cheer and Applause." The rally was apparently beginning in a formal sense. A woman member of the clergy (Episcopalian?) came out and said a prayer. Then there was a pledge of allegiance and the national anthem was sung. The last two were led by students.

At 11:12 the Commerce Secretary Gary Locke gave the first speech. Early on he said it is "time to provide health care for all." He later quoted from the Kennedy letter he wrote shortly before his death. He also made the point that rising health care costs are crushing American business and were making it hard for Americans to sell overseas. He predicted that 10 years from now health care would cost the average American family $25K/year. Rising health care costs would mean fewer workers would be hired and and less pay for those who were hired. He made a significant case for reigning in costs now. He stated that we need health care reform and we need it now. He concluded with the call "President Obama needs your help." I think he concluded his remarks around 11:21.

A lengthy pause then began. I thought to myself that this event was not all that well choreographed -- but I am hardly an expert in such things. I know more about ballet from years of photography than I do know about political rallies.

At 11:44 Rachel Peck strode to the podium and told us her health care story. It was a touching story of being diagnosed with cancer and her extensive treatments. She must continue to be treated for the rest of her life. The story was very touching. She wondered what would happen to her when her parents' policy no longer covered her. She then, rather dramatically, introduced President Obama.

President Obama began his speech by mentioning the elected officials present. Most of the Maryland Congressional delegation was present. Governor O'Malley and Lieutenant Governor Brown were also present, as were a number of other elected officials. Obama stated he ran for president because he wanted a better future for all Americans. He complimented Rachel on her speech. Obama then made a plug for science and technology in our future -- especially mentioning health. He also made mention that the House was taking a major step today that would benefit students by acting on student loan reform.

Obama then got to the topic of health care reform.

Next Obama commented that there were those in Washington who were eager to defend the status quo. He noted that there was some opposition to health care reform.

At this point some protesters in general seating started screaming. I could not make out what they were saying. There was some conflict with other audience members. I thought to myself that this was not an appropriate way to get attention to their views. When you have a very large crowd brought together to support one side in a controversy, you cannot expect much of hearing for opposing views. I think it is better to meet with people you oppose in quieter, smaller settings where real exchanges can take place. Both sides can learn from each other. Eventually someone was escorted out by staff.

Obama said that people gave time to his campaign because they want a better future. He mentioned that Theodore Roosevelt -- a Republican -- was the first President to favor health care reform. He then delivered his famous line "I'm not the first but I will be the last!" I thought to myself that was not likely -- even if he gets his reforms and they do work. Surprises do keep happening to humanity.

Obama said that there was 80% agreement in the proposals now before Congress. He commented favorably on thoughtful criticisms. He said improvement is possible -- partly because of those criticisms. He then went on to say that now is the time for action, now is the time to deliver. He said "You should have the same thing that Congress has." Obama then went on to plug the public option. He compared it to public universities. He said having public universities does prevent private universities but add to the choices people have.

Obama then went on to attack waste and fraud in Medicare. Hmm, I thought, that is a standard line with all kinds of government programs. He also supports looking at malpractice reform. This is a big issue with the medical profession.

Obama then commented "Change is hard." He reviewed briefly the history of things like civil rights, rights for women and social security.

Obama concluded with the story of how "Fired up! Ready to go!" became a campaign slogan. The speech ended at 12:22. As Obama and the crowd left, the band played "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

After the end, I chatted briefly with an African American woman seated behind me. She introduced herself as the pastor of some church. I must apologize to all who are reading this that I did not remember either her name or that of her church. I had stopped taking notes at that time. We both agreed that there also needed to be a focus on healthier living. I shared with her the report of research that compared the health of people in the UK with that of the US who were ethnically similar -- in short, people like my cousin Harry and me. I noted that, in spite of the facts that we spend twice as much on health care and that they drink and smoke more than we do, they are somewhat healthier in middle age and live somewhat longer. I attributed that to an overall healthier lifestyle. I think the woman with whom I chatted agreed with me.

After that, I left the center and took the shuttle back to my car. I was home by about 1:40.

The day was interesting. It was the first time I had seen Obama in person. He had a striking impact on most of the crowd. I expected that, given the fact that it was billed as a rally for supporters of health care reform -- a major issue, particularly on the political left. I wondered to myself how many people would have shown up if the topic had been NASA reform. The turnout would have been far smaller, I think. I will add that my impression of the day was on the positive side as well. The fact that the Commerce secretary noted the negative impact of health care costs on our economic competitiveness and that President Obama spoke in favor of malpractice reform increased my favorable views. Neither needed to mention those things, given the nature of the crowd.

You can find my photos of the event on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Steny Hoyer's Town Hall on Health Care

First, let me welcome people new to this blog. Like a good number of cyberspace veterans, I have a personal website. I will probably update it this month as I am getting more involved in Metro Washington Mensa. I'm even running for office. If you want to meet some friends of mine, just come to St. Mark's Episcopal Church some Sunday. I am involved in other things as well, but that is a place that is open year round and welcomes outsiders. Artomatic also welcomes everybody, but it is open only for about six weeks.

Now let me say a few good things about Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. I've gotten to know him and his staff slightly, mostly through my leadership of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Team Maryland. Congressman Hoyer is a strong, thoughtful supporter of aerospace, as is the rest of the Maryland Congressional delegation. I will say one more thing about him and his staff. I have gotten the impression from both reading about them and from personal experience that he and his staff are trying to promote better relationships among members of Congress. He thinks that people in Congress should spend more time together to get to know each other and their views on issues. I can heartedly endorse this kind of cultural change. I know how hard it can be to communicate with other human beings -- especially when the matter of discussion is somewhat difficult or unusual.

Now let me get to what I saw and experienced Tuesday evening at the town hall. I went with the idea of being a thoughtful observer. The only view I planned to bring up was some research that was reported three years ago. Three years ago a study comparing the health of ethnically similar citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom came out. Briefly, they compared people like myself and my English cousins, Harry, his wife Anita, Irene and their families. People in the UK drink more than we do. They smoke more than we do. The UK spends about half as much per capita on health care as we do. The UK does restrict access to some more expensive, newer kinds of health care. So why do people in the UK live slightly longer? Why are they somewhat more healthy at middle age? I suspect it is because their overall lifestyles are healthier.

I arrived at the high school where the town hall was to be held around 4:15. Before getting into line, I had a brief conversation with Lisa -- Hoyer's political director. Mostly it was about where to get into line. I was waiting in the line by 4:30 - 4:45. I did some photographs before getting into line. When I got into line, I heard three middle aged people (two men, one woman) told me what they thought were negatives about the proposed reforms. The only thing I brought up was the US-UK study. The exchanges were reasonably pleasant -- although I will say the other people were both articulate and quite committed to expressing their views. I did chat a bit more with one man who told me he was a electrical engineer who, when younger, had been a member of AIAA and had written a paper for the organization. When I found out about his engineering background, I asked about his views on energy. He's in favor doing everything to make us energy independent -- nuclear, drilling, etc. He even voiced -- I think -- some support for Boone's proposals for wind energy. I did tell him that Congressman Hoyer supported nuclear. He seemed pleased by that. We also discussed our respective mothers. I told him about my mother's declining years and Alzheimer's. I would describe our discussions as pleasant and friendly. At least it was for me.

Also while outside I had a few friendly encounters (very brief -- mostly just a wave of the hand) with some Hoyer people. I especially remember Terry Lierman and Terrance Taylor.

We were allowed into the building at 6 PM for the 7 PM meeting. I did chat briefly with one Hoyer staffer about the US-UK study. She understood what I was getting at.

Inside the meeting hall we were instructed to fill up seats in the middle of rows first. Only people who had taken numbers and were then selected via lottery were allowed to speak and ask questions. They were limited to 2 minutes each. I chose not to take a number. I wanted to merely observe -- and possibly interact with people around me in the audience.

There was a wide range of people in the hall. There were quite vocal supporters and opponents of reform. I even saw one couple wearing "Impeach Obama" T shirts. People sitting on my right were members of the Iron Workers Union. They were very proreform. People on my left were strong opponents of reform. There was a family in back of me who were also strong opponents of reform. They also appeared to be wearing buttons that indicated to me they were Republicans eager to win back both the White House and Congress. I seemed to get a friendly welcome from both sides. I don't know what they thought of me. I did mention a bit of the ways I was different from most people. I tried to be friendly about it.

Congressman Hoyer entered at 7:08 by my watch. Crowd reactions ranged from loud cheers to boos.

Jim Zinnis (spelling?) announced that he would be the moderator. He informed us that questions would be limited to two minutes. He requested that people keep the town hall civil.

Hoyer began a speech in which he laid out the case for reform and what the bills before Congress would actually do. My notes of his speech are incomplete. I am not a stenographer. I did photograph the Powerpoint slides and graphs that were shown on the screen at the front of the hall. I did record a number of points. Hoyer stated that the country currently loses $200B/year because of the lack of health care for some people. He mentioned quotes from:

  • Truman in 1945
  • Kennedy in 1962
  • Nixon in 1974
  • Republicans McCain, Romney, Thompson, Giuliani in the past few years

all supporting reform.

Hoyer said that if you like your current health care plan, you get to keep it. He spoke in favor of improving Medicare. He said the proposals build on the current system of employer provided health care.

Hoyer did bring up the "death panels" at one point. He said they were not in the legislation. Some people shouted out that they were. There was much booing at this time.

Hoyer mentioned that insurance companies now stood between you and your doctor. Some people cheered. Others booed. There were quite vocal reactions throughout Hoyer's speech.

Next up was a panel of people with varying experiences with today's health care system.

First was a woman with a small furniture business. I think her name was Marilyn McKimm. She spoke of how health insurance problems were affecting her small business. People in the audience started shouting "Get to the questions!"

The next panel member was a Medicare beneficiary, a man who had made a career in the military and was an active Roman Catholic. He praised Democrats for proposing this reform. During his remarks quite a few people shouted out "Read the bill." Some cheered the man. Others booed him. Some people started leaving the hall.

Two more people on the panel spoke. One was a woman pediatrician who spoke of her problems and those of other doctors -- especially with lawsuits and the consequences thereof. The last speaker was an African American retired Lt. Col. by the name of George Forrest. He also favored reform.

The moderator then announced the move to question and answer time. There were loud cheers from the audience.

The first person asked Hoyer if he had read the bill. Hoyer answered that he had now read the bill in full.

The second person asked if members of Congress would get the same health care as the rest of us. Hoyer answered that they would.

The third questioner raised the problem of lawsuits. Hoyer commented that the AMA was addressing that issue.

Many other questions and comments were raised. Some of the ones I noted were:

  • Cost of health insurance for a son with two children.
  • Illegal aliens should not be covered. Hoyer tried to respond with a Christian charity comment. People shouted out "That's for our church to decide."
  • People spoke up in favor of the public option. Hoyer said all three bills had one.
  • Tort reform was brought up by a doctor. He wanted to know about tort reform in Maryland.

At 8:26 I noted a steady stream of people leaving.

One questioner brought up a Ron Paul bill to audit the Fed. He spoke in favor of the bill. He said the bad economy was the highest priority for most citizens.

One African American woman spoke of her 48 year old sister with breast cancer. Hoyer said this woman should keep her current health insurance.

By this time there was a good deal of shouting from the audience -- on both sides. There was also a steady stream of people leaving. After the couple to my left got up and left I chatted a bit with the people behind me. I also took a photograph of the couple.

One questioner brought up how reform would be paid for. Would taxes go up? Would we run deficits? Hoyer answered neither. He then brought up the fiscal mess Obama inherited from the Bush administration. There was a good bit of shouting from the audience.

Another questioner said the majority of Americans now oppose the bills under consideration. Hoyer tried to discuss the complexity of negotiations among Democrats and Republicans. This did not go over well with critics.

By this time it was 8:45. I had a long drive home -- and I had not had dinner as yet. I told the people around me -- on both sides of the issue -- that it was time for me to leave, saying I needed dinner. On the way out I chatted briefly with another Hoyer staffer.

I now have 74 photos up on my Flickr account as the Hoyer Town Hall on Health Care Reform set.

As I walked out with others, we encountered a Larouche volunteer. I told a couple of women about my first Larouche encounter. I mentioned the article in their newspaper about how Queen Elizabeth -- the one who lives in Buckingham Palace -- was head of a world wide drug ring. Both women laughed heartily.

I got home at nearly 10 PM. I sat down to dinner at 10:19.

OK, what do I think of all this? I've read enough that I think some kinds of reforms are necessary. Where they fit I do not know. For instance, I think doctors should get more sleep. I keep saying to anyone who will listen that we humans are not reprogrammable computers. We can't work all the time. If we try, we screw up badly. I also think Americans need healthier lifestyles. That doesn't mean obeying puritanical dictates necessarily. There does seem solid research that indicates that people who drink alcohol are healthier for a number of reasons than total abstainers. Too many of the total abstainers I know eat too much and get too little exercise.

I was somewhat disappointed by the town hall. I thought what Congressman Hoyer tried was important and worthwhile. We really do need to have civil, wide ranging discussions on health care -- and quite a few other things as well. Getting 1500 people into one room and trying to have a good discussion, though, didn't work out the way I would have liked to see it. I don't know if Congressman Hoyer and his staff could have done any better though. This is a very controversial area with a good bit of public interest. It might pay to get smaller groups together -- possibly with a facilitator or two -- to discuss such issues. My personal interactions with both supporters and opponents of the current reform proposals were generally positive. That could be because I'm generally a friendly person who tries to listen to everybody -- and who also will occasionally put in a thoughtful comment of my own that may show people with varying viewpoints the things that they have in common.

I will make further comments on this and other topics in the future. I should start writing more to this blog. Lots of people say I have important things to say.