Overheated Health Care Debates

It was hard to tell how many health care reform opponents attended the town hall meeting in Eugene on Wednesday. For each placard-waving skeptic, there were dozens sitting stone-faced, avoiding eye contact, clutching their lottery ticket, hoping their number would get them a chance to ask U.S. Representative Peter Defazio a question.

The skeptics appeared to comprise 10 percent of the overflow crowd of 1200 in Eugene. It could have been as high as 25 percent, because so many seemed determined not to be noticed. The ones sitting around me were obviously prepared, as if for battle. Questions typed or handwritten, but ready. Printouts from Web sites or e-mails. Notepads on their laps, pens in their hands. In a town that loves diversity, I’m guessing they weren’t feeling much love.

The scene reminded me of another, 30 years ago this summer. I traveled to the Soviet Union and met one of the priests for the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. He described removing most of the pews to make room for each week’s overflowing crowd, and he casually mentioned that the Kremlin was sending spies to every service. He saw the dismay on our faces, and laughed: “Oh, we know who the spies are, because …” (pause for effect) “… they’re the one’s taking notes.”

Defazio’s town hall meeting in Junction City earlier Wednesday was entirely different. Maybe it was the afterglow of the Scandinavian Festival, or the sunny morning of another too-hot day, but people were chipper. I counted about 500 in a Middle School gymnasium. The crowd was more evenly split between supporters and skeptics.

As in Eugene, the skeptics arrived earlier and better prepared than the supporters, but in Junction City, opponents wore stickers proclaiming their opposition. They were less timid. They hollered from the bleachers — hands cupped around the mouth — as they would at a basketball game. (Hold one meeting in a gymnasium and another in a hotel ballroom; which is more likely to get raucous?) There was whoopin’ and hollerin’ for both points of view. A disabled veteran shared how he’d been affected by a Veterans Administration benefit reduction that prompted a standing ovation.

There were ovations aplenty, but Defazio garnered his share of them. It’s not hard for our conscientious, contentious, and slightly cranky representative to list all the big government initiatives he has opposed in his two decades in Washington: the Wall Street bailout, Bush’s tax giveaways, Medicare Part D with its famous “donut hole,” various cap-and-trade schemes, the list goes on.

If the crowd represented a sea of free-floating anger, Defazio seemed equally comfortable swimming or surfing. He shares that anger about how — and how few — things get done in Washington, but he can rise above pettiness to move things forward too.

I stuck around after the Junction City meeting, wandering the home of the Oaklea Tiger Cubs. Even the folks stacking the chairs were in good spirits. One of these days, I’ve got to try one of those aebelskivers.

I expected the parking field to be cleared when I exited, but instead I saw small groups strewn about, all continuing the conversation. Strangers pontificated opposing points of view. Friends shared instant reviews, as they would exiting a movie theater. One especially caught my ear: “I’m gonna go mow the neighbor’s lawn before they get back from vacation.” This debate is important, but life goes on.

Health care for all is overdue, but that doesn’t make it any more urgent. Health care ain’t windshield repair. There’s only one time you need a windshield repair service, and that’s right now. A shattered windshield is not something one plans for. Health care is just the opposite. For most of us most of the time, knowing we’ll get it is almost as good as having it.

Everyone agrees this debate over health care has become overheated. “Embroiled” is the word Defazio used in Eugene. How can we turn down the heat?

Next week I’ll offer a few ideas, each wilder than the others, about how we might improve health care without asking Washington legislators to do the work. It’s not for nothing that cynics say the opposite of “progress” is “Congress.”

Meanwhile, life goes on, and at least one neighbor has returned from vacation to a surprisingly trim lawn.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.