Local Politics

Health care debate filled with sound, fury

Posted August 7, 2009 1:01 p.m. EDT
Updated August 10, 2009 8:04 p.m. EDT

— With members of Congress home for the summer recess, the volume of the debate over health care reform has been turned up.

Hundreds of protesters lined St. Mary's Street Friday afternoon outside the Raleigh office of 13th District Congressman Brad Miller to express opposition to the health care reform proposal working its way through Congress.

The event organized by a group called Triangle Conservatives was peaceful, unlike raucous crowds that have gathered for town hall meetings in several states. Supporters and opponents at many of these events have shoved and shouted at each other and yelled at public officials.

"It does distract, in a very serious way, from the desire of ordinary Americans to understand what's really being proposed by Congress," Miller said.

Much of the debate centers on the so-called public option, which would create a government-sponsored health insurance plan for people who cannot obtain other coverage. President Barack Obama backs the plan as a way to guarantee that every American has health insurance, but opponents say a government-run plan would increase bureaucracy and raise the costs of private insurers.

Protester Rick Smith, who is against the government-sponsored plan, did not leave happy.

“I left more frustrated than when I came and my expectations weren’t high,” Smith said.

Peter Wilz went to the protest to support the plan.

“These are folks, I think, that probably voted for the other side and they’re unhappy about that and about losing in November,” Wilz said.

Miller said the debate has created a "paranoid fringe" element, noting one person who called his office about the issue threatened the Democrat's life.

He said he doesn't find town hall meetings to be productive forums – he hasn't held one in two years – so he has declined numerous requests from North Carolina residents to have a public forum on the health care reform proposal working its way through Congress. Instead, he said, he plans to meet with small groups of people on both sides of the issue to discuss the proposal.

"The kind of tactics we've seen over the last month are distracting us from what the debate really ought to be about. It ought to be about (people)," he said. "It is not about government providing health insurance. It's about government regulating health insurance –  setting rules, providing oversight (and) being a watchdog."

Capitol Police are investigating the death threat, and Miller said it won't deter him from his scheduled public activities. On Friday, he met with cancer survivors and family members, some of whom told him they have to pay $1,700 a month in health insurance premiums.

"Even if I wanted to squeeze every last penny out of my children's present and future, have my home foreclosed upon (and) move into a one-bedroom apartment, I still couldn't afford health insurance," Lydia Tolar, a single mother from Cary who is fighting breast cancer, told Miller.

Although the debate bridges political party lines, Tom Fetzer, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, denounced the death threat against Miller, saying it detracts from an important and necessary national debate.

"I would like to encourage all Americans to get out and to a town hall meeting. I'd like to encourage all elected officials to hold town hall meetings, but we have to behave as Americans behave and comport ourselves in compliance with our standards of civil discourse and proper behavior," Fetzer said. "It should be polite. It should be civil. It should be thoughtful, It can be intense."

Miller met Friday afternoon with several members of Triangle Conservatives during the protest.

First District Congressman G.K. Butterfield said he would hold a two-hour forum on health care reform at 6 p.m. Tuesday at J.W. Parker Middle School in Rocky Mount. It's unclear whether other members of North Carolina's congressional delegation plan to hold such meetings.