On August 14, Orange County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC) members received word that Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) was to be a special guest at our monthly meeting and would update us on the current state of the health care legislation in Congress. On August 16, Grayson announced that he would hold a town hall meeting immediately following the DEC meeting.
Neil Boortz, a nationally syndicated right-wing talk show host, got word of Rep. Grayson's visit and went on a diatribe against him. Other right-wing radio hosts added fuel to the fire, so we knew there would be a substantial crowd at the hall to protest the proceedings. The DEC sent out a message for the membership to come early.
For DEC members, Grayson stated several positions that he had not heretofore made generally known. He stated that he supports the public option, but that if the bill did not contain it he might still vote yes if other provisions were met; provisions such as the insurance companies returning at least 85 percent of their premiums to health care benefits, no new taxes on people making less than $350,000.00, banning the practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and no depreciation in the quality of Medicare.
DEC Chairman Bill Robinson asked all DEC members to vacate their seats to allow those assembled outside the opportunity to meet with the Congressman. A mixed crowd was let in consisting of people for, against, and undecided on health care reform. By this time the outside crowd had swelled to over three hundred people, many carrying signs for or against reform.
The event was mostly peaceful. There was some contention between groups and there was at least one arrest, but generally all the crowd did was change traffic patterns. There were many comments about this being a "staged" event. The real drama was going on inside.
Grayson's press person, Todd Jurkowski, moderated the evening and presented questions from all sides. Jurkowski started the meeting off by requesting that all parties respect the speaker and the meeting. Grayson acknowledged that there were different views in the room and that the difference is really in the means rather than the goal. He took an equal amount of questions from the protesters and the undecideds as he took from the pro-reform people. Many of the issues that he touched upon in the DEC meeting were also discussed during this meeting. He reiterated that, under the proposed reform, those currently satisfied with their current insurance he can keep it, plus if they change their employment or lose their job they will not lose their insurance. He added denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions would become a thing of the past.
Grayson discouraged critics from asking questions that did not pertain to the bill at hand such as tort reform and Medicare fraud, stating that those issues would be addressed in many other pending bills. He cited his record as an attorney who went after fraud and waste in government and stated that it is part of his mission in life. He also said that tort cases and medical malpractice account for only one percent of health care costs. Certain protesters denied his claim, so he invited them to show him evidence backing their position.
When someone asked him about being denied coverage under certain circumstances he directed the person to the bill, which was next to the dais as well as on a projection screen. At that point he pointed to the exact page and paragraph, adding that he in fact did read the bill and he was entirely familiar with it. At one point a woman alleged that prostate cancer and breast cancer were being treated unequally. Grayson told her that if her allegation proved to be true he would introduce an amendment to correct the situation.
At least one protester said that Grayson had presented cohesive and coherent answers to questions and had cleared up many misconceptions, but others would have none of it, and kept protesting that the meeting was a setup.
Three hours worth of meeting was given scant coverage on the 11 PM news by all of the local channels. The Orlando Sentinel gave a somewhat accurate account of the proceedings, and columnist Scott Maxwell blogged the event. Unfortunately, neither Maxwell nor the Sentinel reporters discussed the real reason the crowd was so large--the radio publicity. To their credit, the Sentinel's reporting was mostly non-partisan and straightforward.
As a society, we must determine whether debate can be elevated or squelched. Those who exercise their first amendment rights also bear the responsibility of allowing others their right to be heard. This meeting may not have been in the classic tradition of the mythical town hall, but this Monday evening many views were heard, no one was shouted down, and more than a few people learned something, whether they liked it or not.