- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

HAGERSTOWN | An overflow crowd of about 450 packed a community college auditorium on Wednesday afternoon to hear Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin discuss health care reform, while more than that were turned away at the door.

The meeting, the Maryland Democrat’s second town-hall event on the contentious subject this week, also drew pockets of protesters that lined the streets of a busy intersection two miles from the Hagerstown Community College campus so as to be visible to approaching vehicle traffic. The groups shouted and held signs, including some that portrayed President Obama alongside Nazi imagery.

About 200 people inside the auditorium stood in lines to ask the senator questions from behind two microphones placed in the aisles after Mr. Cardin delivered a brief opening statement.

Those opposing Mr. Obama’s plans to reform health care clearly outnumbered those in support of changing the system.



While the roughly 20 questioners who queried the senator were cordial, the loud — and at times confrontational — crowd often interrupted his answers with boos and jeers. The crowd also quickly turned on speakers who digressed from the topic of health care or made meandering political statements, prompting reminders from the event’s moderator for the crowd to be respectful of each other and the senator and to get straight to their questions.

Some challenged the authority the federal government has to mandate health care. One dissenter asked Mr. Cardin about his philosophical belief regarding how Congress considers a person’s constitutional right to anything, including health care.

“I come to the philosophical belief that the government has the responsibility to ensure there’s good, quality affordable health care for all,” Mr. Cardin said.

The crowd erupted into thunderous applause and a standing ovation in response to a woman who said: “Your government has lost the faith and trust of the American people.”

The cost of health care reform was among the most prominent topics. Mr. Cardin, who extended the meeting by about 10 minutes to take more questions, seemed to sidestep the topic and was greeted with shouts of “Answer the question!” He finally said he would not vote for a bill that expands the nation’s trillion-dollar deficit.

As Bobby Lawrence, 43, of Hagerstown, stood in line to ask a question, he shouted several times, “With all due respect, sir, you work for us!”

At one point, Mr. Lawrence excited the crowd so much that police were called to escort him out of line. He quickly and voluntarily left his place before police reached him.

“You boys were looking for me, but I’ll quiet down,” he said when officers arrived.

“They don’t get it. Cardin in here doesn’t get it,” said Mr. Lawrence, who owns his own business and pays for his health care out of pocket. “I came here because I’ve been watching everything that’s going on. This is not black or white. It’s not because Obama’s a black man. It’s not because he’s Democrat or Republican. People are fed up. When we have kitchen table issues where we only have so much money coming in. We have to reduce our spending. They live in a fantasyland.”

Some in the crowd showed up hours before the meeting started and stayed long after the senator departed. They continued their debates outside the auditorium - even after a steady rain began to fall, leaving their clothes wet and their posters soggy.

Most were concerned with how health care reform would be funded, while others worried whether they would be able to keep their current coverage.

None of the dozens interviewed in and around the auditorium said they were sent to the meeting by a political party or a special-interest group.

Crofton resident Robert Smith, 33, said he supports the president’s plan and that his main concern about the current system is that people are denied access to health care they desperately need.

“People are just scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t want people dying on the streets because they don’t know where to go. It’s a public health issue. As long as one person is sick with something, we’re all at risk.”

But Hagerstown resident Amy Fleming said she worries that placing the system into any type of government control will monopolize health care and eliminate competition among doctors and drug companies as well as limit her decisions about her own health.

“I can get recommendations from my doctor, but ultimately I make the decisions,” Ms. Fleming, 29, said.

Clad in a “Proud Member of Angry Mob, and I Vote” T-shirt, Rockville resident Diane Smith said she disagrees with the concept of universal health care.

“Why is it wrong for me to create debt by running up credit cards or buying a house I can’t afford while they [the government] bankrupt the country?” said Ms. Smith, who pays for insurance out-of-pocket.

Tambilyn Haines suggested loosening the requirements for Medicare and Medicaid to allow more people coverage rather than creating an entirely new system. The Hagerstown resident said she was in a car accident in which her son was killed and she and her daughter were resuscitated.

“Because of COBRA, it didn’t cover all of my bills,” Ms. Haines said. “The settlement I got out of the insurance company only paid for part of my bills. I’ve been paying for them since 2003, but it’s my responsibility. These are my bills, and I have to pay for them.”

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