Health Care: Reports From The Local Desk

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Liane Hansen speaks with Deputy Opinion Editor Ray Cooklis of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Editorial Page editor John Kanelis of the Amarillo Globe-News about how their readers are responding to the health care debate in Washington.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

With Congress adjourning for its August recess, the focus of the debate over health care reform shifts from Washington, D.C. to cities and towns across America. And if local newspapers are any indication, members of Congress can expect an earful when they return to their districts.

We've asked two newspaper editors to share what they've been hearing from their readers. Ray Cooklis is deputy opinion editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and he joins us from member station WNKU in Highland Heights, Kentucky. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RAY COOKLIS (Deputy Opinion Editor, Cincinnati Enquirer): Thank you.

HANSEN: John Kanelis is editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas, and he joins us from the studios of High Plains Public Radio. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHN KANELIS (Editorial Page Editor, Amarillo Globe-News): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: I'm going to just begin with a kind of broad characterization and ask, if you will, of the letters and comments you've been receiving from your readers on health care reform, are they angry, concerned, optimistic, pessimistic, all of the above? Sounds like an SAT test, but can I start with you, Mr. Cooklis? What are you getting?

Mr. COOKLIS: Well, I would say, first of all, we're getting probably close to 30 percent of all the letters we receive are on health care reform. And of those letters, I would say probably three-to-one are expressing reservations and concerns with the plans that are before Congress right now.

HANSEN: John Kanelis, what are people writing into the Amarillo Globe-News?

Mr. KANELIS: Our traffic is about the same as it is in Cincinnati. About 30, 40 percent or so of all our letters are expressing concern about the health care. I want to lay down a kind of a marker here, if that's okay, Liane. The Texas panhandle voted 80 percent for John McCain in 2008. Having said that, President Obama has very little cache here among our readers, and a lot of our readers are very angry with what they're seeing coming out of Washington regarding health care reform.

HANSEN: Are politics driving the debate there or are people actually more focused on the details of the different proposals, regardless of party affiliation?

Mr. KANELIS: It's hard to remove the political component from that because of our very strong Republican leaning here. Our congressman is adamantly opposed to the plans that are being kicked around right now. Mac Thornberry has been very vocal in his opposition to the mandated reforms that are being debated -and our readership and his constituency seems to reflect that.

HANSEN: Mr. Cooklis, what's driving the debate in your city?

Mr. COOKLIS: Well, first of all, we're politically quite a bit more diverse and evenly split. In fact, this past fall's election was the first time in a number of decades that Hamilton County, in which Cincinnati is located, went Democratic. So, politics of course, partisan politics plays a role in a lot of the comments, too. But overall, I do feel that people are concentrating on the specifics and on the issues involved with the proposals here.

HANSEN: Are they leaning toward a public option, a single-payer plan, or something else because there are so many different proposals?

Mr. COOKLIS: There's very little said about single payer. Public option, of course, is getting batted around as one of the major components of it. I think most people are expressing - the ones who are expressing concern - express concern about the costs, particularly in view of small business mandates. And, also, I think on principle, just the concept of the government taking over the system, as some people would characterize it.

HANSEN: John Kanelis, is the sentiment there somewhat the same?

Mr. KANELIS: Somewhat the same, probably a little more ratcheted up, I suppose, in opposition to the plan. Cost is a big issue here. Folks are looking at the cost of it and wondering whether the president can keep his promise that it'll be revenue neutral, deficit neutral, if you will.

HANSEN: What do you expect that your representatives and senators can expect when they get back to the district? What are they going to hear?

Mr. KANELIS: They're going to hear the same thing. I don't see the volume being turned down at all in opposition to these reforms, at least not in this part of the state.

HANSEN: Mr. Cooklis, what do you think the representatives and senators in your district are going to hear when they get back?

Mr. COOKLIS: Well, they're going to hear a lot of concerns. And they're going to hear about a lot of specifics, like people's right to determine their own plans, privacy rights, the issue that tort reform is so far not being addressed in these plans. And I think it's going to be a very lively debate. And, certainly, the Enquirer and Cincinnati.com, we're planning to make that our major focus during the entire month of August.

HANSEN: And are people talking about the stimulus? How is the stimulus being spent in Ohio?

Mr. COOKLIS: Well, until this week there was not much talk at all because there wasn't much visible, as far as stimulus spending. However, the police department here just received a stimulus grant, which is, I think around $17 million, that's going to help them keep 50 officers who might have been laid off.

And, also, just on Friday morning, Children's Hospital in Cincinnati received about $8 million in federal stimulus funds, which they're going to use to hire about 100 new researchers for research into several different ailments and diseases that are going on there.

HANSEN: John Kanelis in Texas, have you been able to spend any stimulus money? Has stimulus money reached there yet?

Mr. KANELIS: Well, yeah. Actually, the city manager told me this week that what we've gotten so far is what he'd call pretty amazing. We've gotten something on the order of $17 million for various projects: transportation money, neighborhood stabilization, public transportation and money to make capital purchases. So there's been a significant amount of federal money coming this way.

HANSEN: John Kanelis is editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News. Ray Cooklis is the deputy opinion editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati.com. Gentlemen, thank you very much.

Mr. KANELIS: You're welcome.

Mr. COOKLIS: Thank you, Liane.

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