Health care meeting draws strong views
The crowd cheered and jeered at both sides of the emotional debate on health care reform at a town hall meeting hosted Friday night by U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.
About a dozen questions were fielded by Mack, R-Florida, and a host of panelists for the two-hour event Friday night at Harborside Center in downtown Fort Myers.
The audience, as expected, was largely Republican and supportive of Mack but others detailed their plight with pre-exisiting conditions and their inability to acquire or afford health insurance. The room could seat 1, 750 and about 75 percent of the seats were filled.
Panelists for the event with a business background were Robert Sanchez, director of public policy at the James Madison Institute, and Al Hoffman, founder of WCI Communities Inc.
From a healthcare background, panelists were Edward Morton, former chief executive officer of NCH Healthcare System; Jim Nathan, president and chief executive officer of Lee Memorial Health System; and Dr. Allen Weiss, current president and chief executive officer of the NCH Healthcare System.
Mack faced a friendly audience when he spoke for about 10 minutes opening the forum, blasting Democrats for their health-care reform proposals.
Mack said a public option and government mandates on health insurance would bankrupt the United States and put small business owners in peril by imposing higher taxes they can ill afford. The Democratic plan for health care reform would result in an unprecedented intrusion in people’s private lives, he said.
“We have to stop turning to the federal government to solve all of our problems,” Mack said. “The government would dictate which health care services must be covered. Ultimately a public option would crowd out private insurance.”
He offered up 10 reasons why the Democrats’ plan for health care reform would devastate the country. Among the reasons, he said, is that 114 million Americans would lose their private insurance and the federal deficit would increase by $229 billion in 10 years. In addition, the Democrat’s plan would impose $118 billion in new taxes and 53 new bureaucratic programs would be created, he said.
In opening statements, Nathan spoke of how the health care system for decades has been running on hidden taxes imposed to the insured through higher premiums to care for the uninsured and the underinsured. Because of aging baby boomers, the Medicare system is nearly bankrupt, he said.
Nathan offered up some local statistics. In 2007, 35 percent of Lee Memorial’s insured patients paid 100 percent of hidden tax to pay for health care for the uninsured. That’s gone down to 28 percent of the insured in 2009, due to the recession, he said.
He also called for an end to scare-mongering when it comes to the the debate in Washington of health care reform.
“This is a time to rise above partisan rancor, bi-partisan collaboration is the only way to succeed,” Nathan said.
Morton spoke of how health care costs have spiraled out of control by chronic illnesses and tort reform.
“Fee for service (insurance), tort reform, these are some of the things we need to think about when we engage in a productive debate,” Morton said.
Hoffman said the fundamental problem is that a competitive environment for health care needs to be maintained for reform and to better control cost costs.
“To spend a trillion dollars and think the government can realize cost savings, I think is totally unrealistic,” Hoffman said.
During his opening statements, Weiss said the health care delivery system needs to change and there needs to be greater emphasis on preventive care.
Among questions from the audience, one man asked why some Republicans say the federal government could not run efficient health care when the VA health care system is good.
Mack responded that the VA does have good insurance and veterans are happy with it but it is not the solution, making a pitch for health savings accounts to allow Americans to buy affordable insurance.
A woman, a diabetic and small business owner in Naples before it closed, spoke of how she is trapped and not able to get medical care because of her pre-existing condition.
“Who helps us, who helps me, where do I go?” she asked the panelists.
Mack told her there are programs out there to help her and he wanted her to meet with some of his staff afterward.
Another audience member asked why Congress doesn’t mandate that each state have a council to represent hospitals and others in the industry to decide whether a medical malpractice claim has validity.
Mack spoke of a constitutional amendment passed in Florida in 2002 or 2003 that provided for victims to keep 70 percent of the award. The Florida trial attorneys got creative and doctors require patients to sign away their rights.
“If we had to do it again I think we would do it again in Florida,” he said, adding that the trial bar would have to be stopped from making patients sign their rights away.
A physical therapist who is self employed, said she and her husband’s monthly premiums are $2,300 a month. Her husband has a pre-existing condition.
“Without a public option, I just don’t see what incentive the insurance companies have to reduce (administrative) costs,” she said.
Hoffman said she does pay too much and said instead of a public option, all Americans should be able to belong to one insurance pool to drive down costs.
Mack added that another answer is to allow people to buy insurance across state lines.
Before the event, Fort Myers resident Robert Brooks was among the first to line outside the door at Harborside at 3:30 p.m., even though the doors didn’t open until 5:30 p.m. A retired dentist, Brooks, 68, said he has a different take on health care than most people.
“I think there should be health care reform, in addition to insurance reform,” he said. “We can’t dump 10- to 30 million people into a health care system without a way to take care of them. We need more primary care physicians, more physician assistants, more nurse practitioners, technicians and dentists.”
William and Sheryl Renken, of Fort Myers, also were among the first in line for the event. William Renken said he supports Rep. Connie Mack, and came out to the event to do that. That said, he said all current health care reform proposals needs to be thrown out.
“Throw them all out, start all over,” he said. “We would like to see everyone insured, (but) we are not sure it’s a right.”
Rebecca Brislain, 55, who wore an Obama T-shirt, said she knows the importance of having health insurance first hand. She shattered her left elbow in January. While her health insurance picked up about $26,000 for the hospital surgery, she still needed to pay about $7,000 for out-of-pocket expenses. After 30 rehabilitation sessions, Brislain said her health insurance cut her off and she’s now paying for the visits on her own.
“I’m happy to have health insurance because I realize so many don’t have it,” she said. “The reality is that I paid more in my co-pays and deductible than my insurance paid.”
Wayne Sakamoto, a Naples insurance agent, said he supports some parts of H.B. 3200.
“I’m here for something in the middle, something sensible and revenue neutral,” he said. Sakamoto said he doesn’t support a public plan because it would be too costly. He also said he would like to see a high risk pool, something several other states have formed.
“I think we need a little more push behind individual responsibility,” he said.
Micki LeCronier, an Obama supporter, wore a Y-shirt with the words “One American dies every 12 minutes” that she wrote in ink on the back of her shirt. That statistic, LeCronier said, comes from a Harvard Medical School report.
“Nobody talks about that,” she said. “That makes me afraid.”
LeCronier said she was diagnosed with Lyme disease in Michigan six years ago and currently is without health insurance.
Margaret Vincent, 52, carried a sign that read “love thy neighbor” as she protested against Mack. Vincent, a federal employee, said she has good health insurance, but know what its like for those people who don’t.
“It is quality care,” she said of her insurance. “I have seen (people) without quality care. Connie has quality care.”
Vincent said Florida Gulf Coast University had been planning a health care forum for months, and had invited Mack because he had not planned his own. Mack schedule tonight’s event about a week ago.
Vincent said she questioned why Ambassador Al Hoffman, founder of WCI, was on the panel.
“What does he know about health care,” she asked. “He was a campaign manager for George W. (Bush).”
Tim Porter, 48, a demonstrator, said he supported a public option.
A Naples resident, Porter has health insurance with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but lost his job in April and is now paying for COBRA benefits. He pays a $197 a month, thanks to a federal subsidy designed to help out those on COBRA.
“I support Obama, and I support a public option only because single payer, universal health care was never on the table,” he said. “This is a watered down version.”
Tony Fransetta, a Wellington, Fla, resident and president of Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, said he expects a public option will be in a final health care bill. Without the public option, Fransetta said, there won’t be any competition. Fransetta said he objected to Mack’s position, saying it was essentially status quo.
“He certainly hasn’t voted right,” he said.
Follow health care reporter Liz Freeman at www.naplesnews.com/staff/liz_freeman .