Health care meetings are lively, but civil (Burlington Free Press)

By Tim Johnson
Free Press Staff Writer

RUTLAND — Hundreds of Vermonters converged Saturday on two public forums that focused on the hot-button issue of the day, health care reform. They came full of passion and sharply divided opinions, but in the end, they remained true to their state’s town meeting brand: They behaved themselves.

There were no personal insults or in-your-face shouting matches that have flared up at health care “town meetings” elsewhere across the country. They kept it civil, and for the most part, respectful — although the respect seemed to come grudgingly from the harshest critics of the man who sponsored and presided over both meetings, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I.-Vt.

At each two-hour session — first in Rutland at the Unitarian Universalist Church, and later in Arlington, under the pavilion in the town’s recreation park — Sanders ran the show. He gave an opening statement, set the ground rules — two minutes for each speaker — and then took questions from all comers. Mindful of the polarized views likely to dominate the discussion, for and against the Obama administration’s reform plan, he directed reform supporters to microphones on one side, opponents to microphones on the other.

There were no personal insults or in-your-face shouting matches that have flared up at health care “town meetings” elsewhere across the country. They kept it civil, and for the most part, respectful — although the respect seemed to come grudgingly from the harshest critics of the man who sponsored and presided over both meetings, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I.-Vt.

In Rutland, where people had begun lining up in front of the church door at 5 a.m., more than 200 people filled the sanctuary and a larger number gathered outside, many holding signs. Sanders heard from both, shuttling back and forth. Some speakers were angry, some were emotional, with an undercurrent of intensity atypical of Vermont town meetings. The crowd was expressive and reactive — the pro faction would groan at the mention of euthanasia, while the con group would cheer when someone called for tort reform. Now and then someone would shout out. “Hold it, hold it,” Sanders would say, and that did the trick.

Sanders made no secret of his own position. He favors a single-payer system, but since that’s not under congressional consideration, he’s staunchly behind the president’s reform plan. He deplored the fact that 46 million Americans have no health insurance and that 18,000 die each year because they get to a doctor too late.

Jen Henry, a nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care and a member of a panel Sanders invited to briefly address each meeting, described the circumstances that led to one such death — a young man without insurance who postponed treatment he could not afford and died, tragically, as a result. His case was a testament, Henry said, to the nation’s “broken” health care system.

Offering a contrary view was Diane Donnelly of Essex Junction.

“We have 80 million people who want to keep their health care. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?” she said, then added: “I do not want to turn into a socialistic country that Obama is driving us into.”

“My biggest fear is that the Senate is cutting a deal with the pharmaceutical and insurance companies,” said Traven Leyshon, who described himself as “a proud union member from Middlesex. “Keeping health insurance tied to employment is a no won for working people.”

“I did not vote for you,” Mary Marriott of Mendon told Sanders. She said that she works in the health care field and disagrees with Sanders’ “socialistic” stance. “Single payer is going to be the death of health care,” she said.

So it went, back and forth. At one point Sanders, while conceding that the government doesn’t always get everything right, addressed the single-payer critique head on.

“How many think we should get rid of Medicare?” he asked. About three hands went up.

“Medicare,” Sanders said, “ is a single-payer government system. How many think we should get rid of the Veterans Administration?”

Again, just a few hands went up.

“The Veterans Administration,” Sanders said, “is a 100 percent government-controlled health care program.”

In Arlington — where the crowd seemed more partial to health care reform and the overall tenor was less tense, in keeping with the relaxed, picnic-ground setting — Sanders asked the same questions and got the same response. He also asked: “How many people think health care is a human right?” A clear majority of hands went up.

Healthcare is a Human Right, a labor-funded campaign, had a presence at both events and funneled speakers to the pro-reform microphones.

Many of the reform critics, by contrast, made a point of saying they were speaking for themselves, not for any organization.

Ann Duncan of Poultney said she’d heard that care for old people would be sloughed off under Obama’s reform.

“Do you really think we’d have a president who would kill off old people?” Sanders said. Scattered yeses could be heard coming from the crowd. Still, at this point and later in the session, Sanders was determined to put the euthanasia issue to rest.

“It ain’t going to happen,” he said. “This is America.”

Several speakers related their health-insurance misfortunes. Ann Gibbs of Poultney said that her husband’s company dropped health insurance and that he couldn’t then get coverage because of a pre-existing condition. They want to have a child but not without insurance, yet they can’t get it.

Lee La Victoire of Rutland said he’s losing vision in an eye and would have to go into debt to afford an operation. Would the reform help him?

Sanders said he thought it would. “The goal is to make sure you have health care you can afford,” Sanders said.

Asked about his own health insurance plan as a member of Congress, Sanders said it was the same plan — Blue Cross Blue Shield, in his case — available to all federal employees and postal workers. “I want to make sure that you can have the same plan I do,” Sanders said.

Several times, Sanders pointed out that the United States spends twice as much on health care as other industrialized countries, and that General Motors spends more per vehicle on health care than on steel. The nation’s health-care system, he said, is “unsustainable.”

Charley Brown of Rutland was concerned about his taxes. “Tell me this health care plan is not going to cost me money,” he said. He said his taxes keep going up.

Not under Obama, Sanders said.

Yes they did, Brown countered. “I can prove it.”

The stimulus package dropped taxes for most taxpayers, Sanders said. “That’s a fact.”

Brown wasn’t persuaded. It was a standoff.

And so perhaps, was the entire meeting. Some minds may have been changed, but it was clear that many went home with the same opinions they’d come with.

That’s how Jon Wallace saw it. He’s state coordinator of Vermont Tea Party, a conservative group critical of reform. Still, he drew some encouragement from what he’d seen.

“This is an important dialogue to have,” Wallace said. “This is not an issue to rush.”

When it was all over, Sanders said the Vermonters who showed up had done themselves and their state proud.

“Nobody here tried to drown anybody out,” he said. “I hope this kind of display becomes a model for the rest of the country.”