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Political Analysis: Town Hall Health Care


There's been an angry reaction to health care reform at some Town Hall meetings this month. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner explores the recent history of public outrage in politics and what forces could be fueling this health care backlash.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: Health care advocate Jan Spencley goes on the record about the health care debate while local editors discuss the fate of the "public option."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. If anyone was wondering what happened to the conservative Republican base since the election of Barack Obama, we seem to have found out this month. Town hall meetings on healthcare across the country have been crowded with people dead set against what they call socialized 'Obamacare.' The facts and figures of proposed healthcare reform have moved to the periphery of the debate and provocative, misleading catch phrases like 'death panels' have taken center stage. What's gotten so many people so riled up about healthcare reform? And have we ever seen public outrage—even manufactured public outrage—like this before? With me to discuss the backlash on healthcare reform is my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Gloria, good morning.

PENNER: Good morning, Maureen. It's good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think about the unruly town hall meetings on healthcare reform? Do people have legitimate concerns or have they been agitated by misinformation? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Gloria, there are those who say the topic of healthcare reform has become a lightning rod for people who see too much change coming at them too quickly. Have we seen this kind of resistance to political change before?

PENNER: We actually have. I'm thinking back to Lyndon Johnson's great society makeover and, truly, it was a makeover. That's when we wrestled with civil rights, racial integration, crime and lawlessness. Remember the riots on campus and in the streets? Women's liberation really sort of got a big start in the sixties, and the war on poverty and the whole sense that America was changing too fast. But the events of 2009 are more personally intense than the changes of the 1960s. Everyone feels affected by this. I'm thinking about the hundreds of thousands of young people who were marching in the streets against the Vietnam War during the Johnson years, so he actually got opposition from both ends of the political spectrum. And even going back to the massive upheaval of Watergate where a president actually resigned, there was very little demonstration of public outrage. People didn't feel so intimately involved. And when President Bill Clinton introduced his healthcare reform proposal in the early nineties, it was largely Republican politicians that ripped it apart but not the public.

CAVANAUGH: And, yes, when you think back to the nineties and the Clinton healthcare, everybody calls it the healthcare debacle and it – and, of course, no healthcare reform was enacted. But, of course, there wasn't this same kind of public reaction apparently. So what are the ideas – why do people think there is so much public engagement now?

PENNER: Well, maybe we're just too vulnerable these days. Often, people become disturbed, disrupted, confused when they've lost economic security and they feel that they're out of touch with the new culture and their place in it. And, certainly, the joblessness of this recession has affected millions and millions of people. Then there's the invasion of, if I dare say that, the social media into our personal lives. That's new. You know, Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and all of that, plus—here it is—the election of our first African-American president. So they've set the stage for some of the disorientation and the powerlessness experienced by large segments of our population, especially the poor, white, working class, militia-oriented people.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm thinking about the time of Clinton and the healthcare. We – It was a relatively stable time back then. We had peace, we had prosperity, and now it's a time when people have already seen their worlds rocked because of recessionary influences.

PENNER: That's true. And another point, I think, is that resistance to healthcare change grew powerfully because the change laid out by President Obama early in his candidacy, before he was even elected, was too dramatic. And then after the election, he followed up with the classic role of a leader in democracy. He set out a goal. He left it up to the people and their elected representatives to figure out the pathways to the goal to provide affordable health coverage and quality care for all Americans. That was his goal. But, you know, the American people may not be used to that kind of approach. A lot of presidents were very direct. They said this is the way I want you to do it, and do it this way.

CAVANAUGH: Let's – We are taking your calls. The number is 1-888-895-5727. There are a couple of people who want to join the conversation. Michael is calling from Rancho Penasquitos. Good morning, Michael, and welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Good morning. Good morning, thank you. I'm concerned about the town hall meetings because it's obvious that people are very angry and loud but it doesn't mean that they're right. And especially when it's based on misinformation and that misinformation is not debunked by some of the political people in power such as Senator Grassley so that's very much of a concern. The other thing that concerns me is that if the public option is eliminated, I'm afraid it'll amount to a huge government subsidy to – in effect, to the insurance companies because people will be mandated for care and there won't really be any significant controls on prices based on competition.

PENNER: Well, I'd like to address the first part of that, I believe, Michael. The second part, that gets into economics and, yeah, I could try to sort that one out but it would take too much time this morning. Let me talk a little bit about those town hall meetings. There are well-heeled interest groups helping to organize the town hall mods. Key organizers include two AstroTurf—that means fake grassroots organizations. FreedomWorks, which is run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients' Rights, and that's run by Rick Scott. You may remember the name Rick Scott. He was the former head of Columbia HCA, that was a for profit hospital chain. He was forced out of that job because there was a fraud investigation, and the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans. They paid 1.7 – excuse me, $1.7 billion dollars, that's billion, in fines. So, you know, we do have these monied interest groups behind it but I think there's something else. The organizers appear aggressive but they – it doesn't appear that the people disrupting those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protestors appear to be genuinely angry and the question is, you know, what are they angry about?

CAVANAUGH: And when you refer to Florida-style rent-a-mobs, you're referring to the 2000 election…


CAVANAUGH: …when the vote count was stopped by what we found out later were largely Republican operatives.

PENNER: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. My guest is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner, and we are talking about the unruly healthcare town hall meetings that have been taking place this month across the country. Let's go to Rebecca in San Diego. And good morning, Rebecca. Welcome to These Days.

REBECCA (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Can you hear me all right? I'm on a Bluetooth. I got off the freeway, though.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, we can hear you fine. Thank you.

REBECCA: Okay, first thing, I don't think that there would be so much upsetness and anger and frustration about the healthcare if the Obama administration hadn't forced it and rammed through without the congressmen and Senators reading the stimulus and said, we have to do it now, we have to do it now, without controls and rationality about it. That's the first thing. The second thing is, there may be components that are AstroTurf. There's also real people who are frustrated. The third thing is about the death panel. I'm a mother of a 30 year old severely handicapped daughter and about 12, 15 years ago the editor of the Mensa magazine wrote an editorial about how handicapped people do not have the quality of life they should and they are a drain on society because they take up so much money, and they should be humanely dispatched. If they would put in the bill a protection but the way the bill is written right now, it's a legitimate thing that people – so that would never morph into something scary. If they would put in a protection that would absolutely forbid it from morphing into something – into a death panel, a lot of us wouldn't be terrified. The problem is, there's no protection to keep it from morphing.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for those points, Rebecca.

PENNER: I – May I choose one, Maureen?


PENNER: Because I don't think we have time to do all three. Let me talk about the so-called death panels. That actually sort of came through fairly recently when the former vice presidential candidate for the Republican party, Sarah Palin, used that term and Republican Senator Charles Grassley used that term. There is nothing in any of the legislative proposals that would call for the creation of death panels or any other governmental body that would cut off care for the critically ill as a cost cutting measure for those people who are maimed or elderly. But over the course of the past few months, anti-abortion conservatives stated that Mr. Obama would pursue a pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia agenda combined with accounts of actual legislative proposals—and these were twisted accounts; they didn't really exist—that would provide financing for optional consultations with doctors about hospice care, other end of life services. So they took those accounts, these consultation type panels, and they used that to feed the rumor whereby these became death panels. So I think if people could get beyond that, if they could take a look at this and say, you know, we're – people are trying to scare us and they're succeeding, and I'm going to resist it.

CAVANAUGH: Let's go to the caller again. Charles is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Charles. Welcome to These Days.

CHARLES (Caller, San Diego): Oh, hello. Thank you. I just found it very interesting that you suggested that the economic recession and people's sense of the fragility of their economic situation was background to this anger and that perhaps it was poorer sections of the community, particularly poorer whites who are expressing this vocal opposition to the healthcare plan because, of course, that's – those poorer sections of the community are precisely the people who stand to benefit from Obama's healthcare plan, particularly the public option. And currently Americans are suffering terribly from the really unfair way in which healthcare is distributed and the locking of the poor out of access to adequate healthcare, and there are so many tragedies that are involved in the current healthcare situation. So it's just very odd. Why would people be behaving in a political way that is directly opposed to their own social and economic interests? And…

PENNER: Well, that is really an interesting question because – I'm going to give you an example of what we're talking about. A while back, during one of the town hall meetings, a supporter of President Obama's desire to have an overhaul asked people, did they – how did they feel about any form of government run healthcare? And nearly everybody in that group said they did. And then this was Representative Green of Texas, he asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands. So people who don't know that Medicare is a government problem (sic) probably aren't reacting to what the president is actually proposing.

CAVANAUGH: I think you mean program.

PENNER: What did I say?


PENNER: Oh, I said – I meant, yes, of course, program. And so this may have something to do with it. To sort out the truth from all the many realities that are being provided to people takes a lot of work, and some people just react emotionally. So I think you're right. I think, you know, the poor would benefit because in some way healthcare or that coverage that is not available to those segments of the community would be part of whatever legislation comes forth.

CAVANAUGH: And let's trace from just one of our callers, Rebecca called and said that she has a disabled child and she's concerned that that child will not get the proper care because of what she's heard about so-called death panels in this new healthcare legislation. And her concern for her child is legitimate but, basically, what you have been saying and what has been in most of the press is that the fact of the matter is, there is no such provision in any bill being considered by the U.S. Congress. There is no – There is nothing in there at all that would ration healthcare or have any kind of a panel that would decide if you would get healthcare.

PENNER: Okay, let me say this. This is not new. The specter of government-sponsored, forced euthanasia was raised right after Obama won the election. The Washington Times raised it, and that was before healthcare reform legislation was even drafted. Let me tell you about that editorial. The newspaper reminded its readers of the Nazi Germany program which targeted children and adults with disabilities and anyone was subject to execution who was blind, deaf, senile, retarded. The editorial worried about whether the new team at the White House would follow a similar program. It wrote about concerns about Obama's abortion rights philosophy. And then from the American Spectator, it said reducing healthcare costs under Obama's plan, after all, counts as an economic stimulus, too. Controlling life, controlling costs, controlling death. So there it was; it was laid out even before one single healthcare proposal was on the table.

CAVANAUGH: And what you have just demonstrated is how people, as Charles mentioned, are being scared from – into actively participating in working against their own interests, basically…


CAVANAUGH: …when it comes to healthcare.

PENNER: Exactly. And, unfortunately, people who feel disenfranchised, weak, disoriented, disrupted in their lives, are very vulnerable.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Stephen is calling from Hillcrest. Good morning, Stephen, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning. I just wanted to make a brief comment, you know, about the level of debate. I was watching Bill Moyer (sic) this past week and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a media analyst, made a really good point about how our media merely follows the controversy. So, you know, in the, you know, the noise room it's really difficult to have a deep conversation about difficult issues and get real information across. We're – We basically have 24/7, you know, infotainment channels and they really are very poor at moving the discussion forward.

PENNER: Well, and, Charles, I make a recommendation that you be really selective in what you watch and Bill Moyers is a good choice. And your listening to us this morning, that's a very good choice.

CAVANAUGH: I think it – And also what the caller meant, I think, is also that there's such an emphasis on looking at disruption in the media. You know, whenever there's people yelling, the camera is there and that's good television. But where is the debate? Where is the time where we're actually talking about these issues? We don't see a lot of that.

PENNER: That's true. And even the president has had to react to it, and lately he's had to step in more strongly. You see him holding his own meetings in which he is trying to deal with the – with the misconceptions. In fact, he's now changed his message from healthcare reform to insurance company reform but he's still not dealing with the details. If he had hoped that the ideas would bubble up from the people to their representatives in congress, what he's getting is the negativism that you and Charles were talking about, Maureen. That's what's bubbling up, and it's messing up the brew and it's frothing over and it's dampening congressional resolve and determination to do something meaningful.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Joel is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Joel. Welcome to These Days.

JOEL (Caller, San Diego): Well, thank you. I would just like to make the point by, in a small sort of way, this show is legitimizing the lies by you mentioned the caller about the death panels and since you're – she has a child and her concerns are legitimate. Well, her concerns about this point are not legitimate. A concern about your child's general welfare are but her concern about this death panel is not because it's a lie. And the media needs to start saying that. That's not a legitimate concern. But my main point I want to make is, you know, Charles Grassley was considered one of the guys we could work with, the Democrats. I'm a Democrat, I'll admit it. Bipartisanship is not working here. I mean, they're not going to get any voice – votes, they're not there. Do not make the concessions. I believe they should pass this not bipartisanly, if need be. You're never going to get the votes. They're just playing games. They're throwing out lies. If you're going to get anything done, you know, use the majority you have now and then if – and take the consequences later. If the public doesn't like it, we will be voted out of office.

PENNER: You know, what you're saying is something that was in the news this morning, that the Democrats—and you are a Democrat—have arrived at the same conclusion. They're just going to do what they need to do without hoping for Republican support, so you're right on. And I just want to say one more thing before I turn it back to Maureen. It's people who are ideologically opposed to Mr. Obama seeing this as an opportunity to weaken this president.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank Gloria Penner. She is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. I want to remind you, you can hear our five-point report series on healthcare at And These Days will continue in just a moment here on KPBS.

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