Blue voices in a red room: Notes from an Obamacare “informational” town hall

What could be better on Constitution Day than a traditional American town meeting?  What a perfect way to celebrate the document that is a testament to our liberties and that ensures our rights such as the right to freedom of speech.

On Constitution Day, September 17, 2013 I attended the Obamacare town hall meeting sponsored by St. Louis radio station 97.1 and Americans for Prosperity [Koch brothers].

So what free speech were we subjected to?  Dr. Randy Tobler, a physician and radio personality, showobama_syringe_smallered slides depicting President Obama in doctor scrubs, smiling broadly and holding an oversize syringe. The label?  “This is going to hurt!”

Another slide had a caricature of President Obama, a large figure, looming over the shoulder of a doctor who was leaning down toward a young child in diapers with a thermometer in his mouth. The label?  “Oh, don’t mind me….”

One graphic Dr. Tobler presented showed pieces and parts of what we learned was a medical device from the last century. Apparently it was some sort of pipe used to clear the lungs. Dr. Tobler said that Obamacare is like that pipe, “blowing smoke up your arse.”

Those slides may have been in bad taste but we can all agree with his right to show them. Certainly the 500 or so people in the auditorium enjoyed them; the slides were received with laughter and cheers.

Dr. Tobler showed the slides while freely expressing his view of the horrible “truths” about the effects of Obamacare, “the worst bill ever passed by the United States Congress.” Tobler said:

…with Obamacare we will have insurance but no access to care. The law will “take the wind out of the sails of medical care in the U.S. Doctors will be so overburdened that patients will get fewer services. Patients will only be seen for 7 minutes when and if they can get an appointment. Electronic medical records are costly and doctors will spend too much time dealing with regulations.

He even said that doctors (whom he earlier said care about their patients welfare) would have an incentive to withhold care.

We will be like Canada and Great Britain with patients having to wait months for hip replacements and  even for mastectomies.  And remember those death panels?  There is one – under Obamacare we will experience the death of medical ingenuity in this country. And what about Medicare?  Reimbursements will go down by 750 billion dollars.

One woman, a member of the progressive group, Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, and Vice President of Missouri Health Care for All, took her opportunity to voice her objection to Dr. Tobler’s remark about the 750 billion dollars. She went to the microphone and said that the $750 billion is being removed from overpayments to private Medicare Advantage plans that charged 14% more than traditional Medicare. She reminded the audience that even Paul Ryan accounted for this removal in his proposed budget.

How were her comments received? Her free speech was booed, and the moderator of the panel made fun of her. On her way back to her seat a man stuck out his foot as though he was stretching, trying to trip her. After she sat back down in her seat on the aisle a woman walked by, punched her hard in the arm and said, “There’s a liberal in every crowd.”

Another woman took the microphone to refute the claim that the majority of Missourians voted against the individual mandate in the health care law. She remarked that the majority of the small number who voted opposed the mandate. Her remarks were not only jeered, but the microphone was turned away so she could no longer speak.

The Missouri legislature’s Speaker of the House, who hosted the town hall meeting, talked about the “facts that shape his policy,” calling on the audience to continue the work of dismantling Obamacare to rid ourselves of that “free plastic health insurance card.” [It doesn’t exist.] Missourians, he noted, voted by a margin of 11.5 percent for Romney, thereby agreeing that the law should be overturned. He told the audience that “We don’t know what is in the law, because “tens of thousands of regulations are being drafted every day.”  He called Obamacare “the largest entitlement in the history of the United States” and complained that every state is doing something different. He even blamed President Obama for funds being taken from hospitals for uncompensated care.

No microphone was available to let the audience know that the hospital funds are  being lost because Missouri refused to expand Medicaid. If more people are given care under Medicaid, hospitals would receive payments for these patients and have less need for the funds.

One voice of reason among the panelists was Vince Blair, an insurance agent. Blair presented a factual account, with explanatory slides, of what people need to know about how to purchase insurance on the new marketplace. He even encouraged people to go to the online exchange if they are uninsured. He assured the audience that if they are on Medicare they will not lose their benefits but will be unaffected by the new law.

What format should a town hall meeting take? One simple definition describes it as an informal public meeting where everyone in the community is invited to attend and participate in the discussion. Our Constitution Day town hall was a 90-minute, scripted program to present the “facts” as represented by the Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives and a physician who opposes the Affordable Act.

At our town hall, only one side of the issue was presented by the speakers. When the audience jeered those who disagreed with the speakers, and the moderator and panelists mocked the questioners, and the microphone was kept from an audience member, the real mockery being made was that of our tradition of fairness and discussion at a public forum.