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Michigan crowd vents health care fury

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

ROMULUS, Mich. | There were no buses, no swastikas, not a piece of Astroturf in sight.

But there was name-calling, jeering, red faces and finger-pointing as Michigan residents shot back with fury at a congressional town-hall meeting geared to explaining President Obama's health care plan.

Rep. John D. Dingell, a Democrat and a lead author of health care legislation in the House, did his best to remain composed, even as many constituents and other residents argued that the plan is socialized medicine and rained down fury against a smaller group of supporters for the plan.

"You're a fraud, you have not read the bill," screamed Mike Sola, who got directly in the lawmaker's face in furious confrontation, wheeling his 36-year-old son, Scott, who has cerebral palsy, directly to the podium before police stepped in and encouraged the Milan, Mich., man to leave. He asserted that the bill would not help his disabled child.

"Fascist America," Mr. Sola screamed on his way out.

Mr. Dingell, 83, who has championed universal health care reform since 1957, joined the fray with many of his Democratic congressional colleagues, who are caught in an angry backlash as they attempt, during the August recess, to sell the president's health care reform plans in their home districts.

Many have been met with mob scenes and police intervention as public outcry has turned violent.

Mr. Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, asked for patience as he tried to answer questions at Thursday night's meeting at the Romulus Athletic Club, but he got little as the jammed conference room erupted into a shouting match, with the bill's opponents far outnumbering its champions.

In his confrontation with Mr. Sola, Mr. Dingell said an amendment to his House bill would provide care for the younger Mr. Sola's condition -- and later offered to meet with the family privately. But the scene inflamed members of the already seething crowd, who refused to remain quiet as Mr. Dingell tried to speak.

"I get the feeling that you don't want to know what is in the bill -- if you don't, go home," he said in frustration.

"How are you paying for it?" a man in the crowd demanded, his face turning crimson. "Where is the money coming from?"

"The bill will assure that the program will be budget neutral," Mr. Dingell responded as many in the audience booed, hissed and guffawed.

Others retaliated with chants of "health care now," waving signs of support as camera crews captured the scene.

"Let him speak," they urged as Mr. Dingell was constantly interrupted.

"Kill the bill," many in the rowdy crowd screamed back.

Perhaps no other state has consistently felt the pain of the recession as much as Michigan, where loss of auto and other manufacturing jobs sent unemployment rising to 15.2 percent in June as such bellwether companies as General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have entered bankruptcy and shed thousands of jobs.

That rising unemployment and the seeping away of the once-proud labor culture here has spawned anger and a resentment of government that has found itself a rebel cause in Mr. Obama's plan for overhauling the nation's health care and insurance systems.

Across the country, similar scenes of outrage have played out with Obama supporters and some members of Congress blaming a conservative cabal producing fake grass-roots opposition," or "astroturf."

The president prepared for a trip to the West this week, where he will visit national parks and tout his health care initiative amid much resistance. He was hailed as a rock star at the beginning of his term, but winning the health care issue is important as his public popularity sags to an all-time low while the economy shows little sign of a quick correction.

A poll released Aug. 6 by Quinnipiac University found the president's job approval rating at 50 percent. Voters who disapproved of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy outnumbered those who approved, by 49 percent to 45 percent. Voters were even more disapproving of his handling of health care, by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin.

Those against his plan have cited such terms as "Big Brother" and "socialism," painting the Democratic plans as a veiled government takeover.

"The government can't run anything successfully," said Korean War veteran Andrew Brinkman, 78, a retired computer programmer for Chrysler who attended the Dingell event. "Why would we expect them to get this right?"

"It seems to me this is a push to nationalizing everything," said his wife, Rosemary, 63, a retired social worker from St. Clair Shores, Mich. "The government has put us through so much financial stress. It's burdensome on all Americans, and the middle class will be squeezed out, for sure. I'm not in favor of it. I'm very angry."

Barb Cornish, 61, a retired elementary school teacher from Ypsilanti, Mich., described as "heavy-handed" the efforts of the Obama administration to drive the plan through quickly with little bipartisan support.

Mrs. Cornish, a registered Democrat and a teacher's union negotiator before she retired, said she opposed government's ability under the plan to make decisions about what level of care she could have as she gets older.

"I don't want government deciding if I can have a hip replacement or whether I should just be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life," she said.

Even as the push was on, she said government was not listening to the will of the people.

"This is not a society that I want to be a part of," she said, noting that this was the first time she was moved enough to attend such a rally and blast Democratic criticisms of the health care plan's opponents.

"This is Big Brother. And to hear Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi talk about a mob scene at these events. There are no buses out there. People are so mad, but our elected officials are not listening, so this has become festering frustration. I fear if we don't do something, this is going to be shoved on through," she said.

Supporters of the plan said at the town hall that the nation's health care system is broken and the time to act is now to ensure those without coverage can get it.

Gail Steih, 46, of Ann Arbor, Mich., came to the rally with her daughter, toting a sign that read, "GOP - The Party of No." A speech therapist, she said conservatives were telling lies about the program as scare tactics.

"Our economic system is forcing thousands of people in Michigan to lose their health care, and many are bankrupt," said Mrs. Steih, who said she lived in Germany for a time and got an up-close look at the government-run health care there. "It's just a crime that 47 million people here don't have health care.

"I haven't heard the Republican Party come up with any ideas," she said. "They are always in line to say, 'No, no, no.' "

Added Marcia Boehm, a disabled college instructor who cannot get insurance because of a pre-existing condition and who joined Mr. Dingell to speak in favor of the plan: "This is a moral issue. ... Every day I wake up, it's like playing Russian roulette."

Mr. Dingell, who later met with reporters away from the emotional throng, was asked what would happen if the plan failed.

"It isn't going to fail," he said confidently, undaunted by the commotion. "I won't let it."