Sen. Cardin Feels Heat On Health Care

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who has been supportive of calls to remake the health care system, has been getting a earful about the overhaul from seniors and others concerned about what they have been hearing. People began arriving at Hagerstown Community College more than four hours before the scheduled start of the meeting.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Next, we'll walk you through one of those town hall meetings that have generated so much heat this summer. Lawmakers routinely meet with constituents in August. This year the meetings are anything but routine as critics of a health care overhaul pack the rooms. The crowd that gathered to see Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin yesterday included NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: People started to arrive at Hagerstown Community College more than four hours before the scheduled start of the meeting. Some, like Martha Jenkins of Silver Spring, had tried to get into another Cardin town hall earlier this week, but there wasn't enough room. This time she made sure she was one of the first in line.

Ms. MARTHA JENKINS: And I came on my own. I'm not AstroTurf.

FESSLER: That's a reference to what Democrats say is a fake grassroots campaign being waged against their plans by right wing interest groups.

Ms. JENKINS: We are the real deal. We are the people that are concerned about our future and the takeover of this country and the dismantling of capitalism and Big Brother trying to run our lives.

FESSLER: Like many here, Jenkins doesn't believe lawmakers when they insist there are no plans to have the federal government take over the entire health care system. And she says she has print-outs from the Internet to back her up.

Jenkins is clearly in the majority here, although some in line do wear Obama stickers. Still, the crowd is calm. There's none of the shouting between factions that has been seen outside other town halls this week.

Diane Morgan of Williamsport is a little worried, though, after listening to the conversations around her. She came here to find out more about the legislation. She'd like the government to help those who can't afford health insurance.

Ms. DIANE MORGAN: I'm hoping that we'll have a civil discussion, that there will not be a lot of yelling and screaming and irresponsible lying going on, name calling that I've heard about.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome. Welcome.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

FESSLER: But it didn't take long for things to deteriorate after about half of the thousand people waiting on line were finally allowed inside and many of them got up to ask Senator Cardin questions like this one about costs.

Unidentified Man #2: How do you intend to continue to pay for a program that is going to be unaffordable, untenable, and why not go into an area that is more effective like tort reform and closing the borders? Let's get the illegal immigrants (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Senator BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): Illegal aliens will not be in this bill. Period. The end.

(Soundbite of shouting)

FESSLER: And Cardin got a similar response when he insisted that any overhaul of health care would not add to the federal deficit.

Senator CARDIN: This bill will be paid for. The president said…

(Soundbite of shouting)

Senator CARDIN: …it will be paid for primarily - primarily within the health care system itself.

FESSLER: He went on to explain that health care costs could be reduced by providing incentives for healthy lifestyles and by providing universal coverage that will reduce emergency room use. But it appeared that most of those at the microphones already had their minds made up. Some were part of the anti-tax tea party, but others say they were just frustrated with the Wall Street bailout, the economic stimulus bill, and now this. Martha Jenkins said she was one of those people.

Ms. JENKINS: Your government has lost the faith and trust of the American people.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

FESSLER: That brought about two-thirds of the crowd to their feet.

Outside the room, Cardin told reporters he thinks town halls are useful if people can have their questions answered. But he admitted he's up against a lot of misinformation about the bill.

Senator CARDIN: There's been efforts made to mislead the public as to what will be in the health care reform proposal. And I don't think that furthers the debate.

FESSLER: But it's not clear how he and other Democrats will respond. Cardin has no more town hall meetings planned for this month, but there are plenty of other Democrats who do.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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