Gordon's town hall full of passion

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Citizens against government spending hold up signs before Rep. Bart Gordon's town hall meeting at MTSU's Tucker Theatre in Murfreesboro. Below, Gordon answers a question during the 90-minute meeting.

MURFREESBORO - An open meeting Monday night with U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon on the issue of health care reform drew passionate responses from both sides, although opponents of the current health care proposal clearly had an edge in terms of number of people in attendance.

Many of those in attendance challenged Gordon on abortion issues as they relate to health care proposals.

"Health care is really a very personal issue," Gordon said during a press conference following the open meeting. He noted the presence of protesters outside his office.

"Quite frankly, I didn't want to see anybody get hurt or anything happen." He said a third-party sponsorship of the event helped to keep it civil.

The open meeting was sponsored by The Daily News Journal, which challenged Gordon to meet with the public after the Murfreesboro Democrat originally announced that he would only hold telephone conferences and one-on-one meetings during this congressional break.

All 900 tickets for the event were taken, including 825 tickets for the general public and 75 given to the two major political parties, the city of Murfreesboro, and Middle Tennessee State University, which hosted the event. Questioners were asked to form three lines: one line for those opposed to the current health care proposals, another for those in favor, and a third line for those with other issues. Publisher Andrew Oppmann rotated the questions among the three lines.

The meeting revealed deep feelings and occasional not-so-civil behavior. The crowd shouted Gordon down on occasion, such as when he would begin his responses to questions with a folksy or friendly side note rather than a direct answer.

Loyd Warren of Wartrace was one of those who queried Gordon on abortion. Standing in line prior to the event, he said he was attending the meeting because he believes Gordon "flip-flopped" on the issue, voting against an amendment related to tax-funded abortion before turning around and voting for it.

Gordon later said that he voted for one amendment by mistake, having confused it with a different measure, and later voted against it, saying the second vote was consistent with his beliefs and policy.

When Warren got the chance to ask a question during the open meeting, he started by asking Gordon if he would be willing to forego his Congressional health care package and sign up for whatever package is provided by the health care bill. Gordon said he would gladly do so, and even introduced an amendment which would have required members of Congress to do so. Gordon said during the press conference that the amendment was killed in committee by the GOP.

Warren criticized Gordon for voting against an amendment that Warren said would have ensured that no federal funding goes for abortion.

Throughout the evening, Gordon said he is a supporter of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which Gordon said prohibits federally-funded abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. But some questioners said the Hyde amendment only applies to Medicaid and would not necessarily apply to any new health care system.

"I am tired of you hiding behind the Hyde Amendment," said Katy Brown of Bell Buckle. "Don't talk to me about the Hyde Amendment, because that is Medicaid."

John Anderson of Bell Buckle carried a sign outside the event calling Gordon a liar if he denies voting for taxpayer-funded abortions.

Other speakers, however, opposed health care on more general terms, calling it socialist and saying it would result in rationed care or in government making decisions about which doctors or procedures were available.

"Tell me one thing that the government can do better than private industry - other than the military," said Dave Williams of Murfreesboro. Gordon cited a list of federal agencies, from the National Park Service to the Food and Drug Administration.

Gordon repeated frequently that he opposes a government-run "public option" plan, although some of his critics appeared not to believe him or alleged that he will have to change his stance to please his party's leadership.

"I hope you stick to it, and when the time comes, that you won't crawfish," James Averitt of Murfreesboro told Gordon during the open meeting.

Gordon said he would like to see more exploration of health care cooperatives and of cost-saving measures like tort reform or ways to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. He said paying doctors by direct deposit instead of by check could save the government between $5 and $10 billion. He said that one in six dollars in the U.S. economy go to health care and that something must be done to contain its rising costs.

"We need to look more into this co-op situation," said Gordon.

Gordon said in the press conference that he wished more of the open meeting could have been spent talking about areas of agreement, such as the need for tort reform. He noted during the open meeting that both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain talked about the need for health care reform during their presidential campaigns.

Giselle Roche of Murfreesboro said before the meeting that, being self-employed, the high cost of health care weighs on her and her family. She said she is upset at what she calls misinformation which has been spread about one of the main health care plans, H.R. 3200. She said the bill does not call for the infamous "death panels."

Gordon made the point during the meeting that there are currently five different proposals before Congress and that H.R. 3200 still has 90 more amendments waiting to be voted on.

"There is no final bill," said Gordon. "If it came up the way it is now, I would not support it."

Linda Selby of Shelbyville, who is both a student and a teacher at MTSU, said she would be willing to bear part of the cost to make sure that the 47 million people who have no health insurance get affordable access to it.

"If we have to pay more taxes, so be it," said Selby.

Patty Finley of Rockvale, a retired registered nurse, said that Medicare was a form of government-run health care.

"If you want to call it 'socialized medicine,' it's not an accurate term, but it works," said Finley.

Gordon was also challenged on his support for the stimulus package. When Gordon said that the recession was the worst in 70 years, he was shouted down by some members of the crowd, who said that the recession of the 1980s was as bad. When Gordon said that doing something to respond to the recession was better than doing nothing at all, he was also shouted down.

One Woodbury resident who identified himself as a legal immigrant said that the current U.S. health care system is unsustainable. He said that Germany, Finland and Spain have "universal, non-socialized, semi-private" health care plans, have health care rated higher than the U.S. by the World Health Organization and have lower infant mortality rates than the U.S. He said Germany has a large number of private health care plans among which citizens can choose. He noted that the U.S. ranks far down the list of countries for both life expectancy and infant mortality.

Mention of other countries' health care systems drew boos from the crowd, and Gordon rushed to say that he supports "a uniquely American system" and would not want to copy any other country's health care plan.

Several speakers who favored some form of health care reform told stories of being unable to get insurance due to pre-existing conditions or other factors. Kelly Inskeep of Rutherford County said her husband changed jobs, leaving the family with no employer health benefits, and the family can't get individual health insurance because of pre-existing conditions.

"I don't want anything for free," declared Inskeep. She said she just wants access to affordable care.

Hannah Brooks of Nashville, a recent MTSU grad, said her neurological disorder makes her uninsurable.

Gordon remained non-combative for most of the evening, but at one point he made a defiant reference to GOP attack ads against him.

"They've done it before, and they haven't gotten me yet," said Gordon. "I am not going to unilaterally disarm. I am going to fight back and tell the truth."