Philadelphia, PA -- August 2 - This afternoon, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, I saw the face of ignorance and hate--and it wasn't pretty.
When Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) came to the National Constitution Center to answer questions about health care reform, they were greeted by an overflow crowd of approximately 400 people, the majority of whom were supporters with legitimate questions.
Unfortunately, though, a well-organized, belligerent and loud group of right-wingers stood in the aisles and across the back and disrupted the town meeting throughout. They yelled, shouted and jeered, and it was clear that they were not there to participate, but instead to try to disrupt the meeting and make it difficult as possible for anyone else to ask questions. They jeered from the moment the director of the Constitution Center stood to welcome everyone. For a few days leading up to the town meeting, e-mails circulated around Philadelphia warning that the "tea-baggers" were planning to protest the meeting and, although there were fewer of them than there were supporters--they made more noise shouting about "socialism," "abortion," and "assisted suicide."
To show their support, the audience stood and applauded Secretary Sebelius and Senator Specter numerous times. There were people in the crowd wearing purple t-shirts with gold and white lettering that said "Health Care Now We Can't Wait."
Local members of Health Care for America, a non-partisan, nationwide coalition of volunteers were a strong presence at the event. According to Antoinette Kraus, a Pennsylvania Eastern Organizer for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, one of Health Care for America's member organizations, "Two people a day die in Pennsylvania from illnesses that could have been prevented if they'd had access to affordable health care.
"We advocate for quality health care for all through a public option," she said, "and we encouraged all advocates of health care to come out today and support Sect. Sebelius and Senator Specter."
In spite of the chaos, questions were asked and answers given. In response to one question, Specter said, "I believe the single-payer system should be on the table," and was enthusiastically applauded. A retired nurse then prefaced her question by saying, "If single-payer passes, I'll come out of retirement!"
When asked why the Community Choice Act (which would cover patients who can be treated at home) wasn't included in the proposed plan, both Sebelius and Specter explained that they are an effort to put it in the final Senate bill.
When an angry woman approached the microphone and complained that health care reform would lead to "rationed care," Secretary Sebelius said emphatically, "Rationed care is absolutely not something we condone," and explained that today health care is "rationed everyday for people who do not have coverage."
To emotionally charged questions about abortion and assisted suicide, Sebelius calmly answered, "Abortion and assisted suicide are not a part of the legislation."
impassioned and frustrated man asked why--if sixty-three percent of the American people favor health care reform--can't sixty-three percent of the Congress pass the legislation. Specter replied, "We are going about it in a democratic way."
One person described seeing people "falling through the cracks everyday" and asked what can be done about "getting insurance for people with serious illnesses." Sebelius explained that the proposed health care reform would require "no more pre-existing barriers, no more being dropped by insurers when you're seriously ill, and no more losing coverage when you lose your job."
Frances Conwell, Philadelphia, was in the audience and supports health care reform and she explained, "People say they don't want to pay for other people, but I say they're going to pay anyway--they can choose to pay for prevention or for how much it costs us now when people have to go to the emergency room for care." She added, "I have health care, but I can't watch other people suffer just because I have coverage. You have to think outside yourself and think about other people."
Maureen Benzig, retired, who formerly worked at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, said, "I would like to see a single-payer system and I was happy to hear Senator Specter say he like it on the table, but I support a public option if we can't get single payer." Benzig described a family member who is a physician and took a year off in order to support single payer. Her own doctors, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania also support single payer.
When I asked one of the belligerents why he and his companions wouldn't stop shouting so others could speak and be heard, he shouted that it was his right to yell under "the first amendment." I then asked why he couldn't respect the first amendment rights of others and he answered by glaring at me and walking away.
After the question and answer segment ended, I asked three of the boisterous opponents of health care why they do not support it and one of them pulled a copy of the Constitution from his hand and waving it, said, "Health care is not covered in the Constitution." Their arguments were illogical and based on lack of knowledge and an abundance of fear. I commented to them that they were being had, that they were working against their own best interests and they kept waving the Constitution.
The fury and rancor in the faces of the right wingers at the town meeting made it clear that this was not about health care only. It is about fear and raw anger, already inside them, now directed toward the health care debate. They see defeating health care legislation as their opportunity to re-visit the Presidential election.