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Walz and Sebelius find 'Teletownhall' success: a useful health-care discussion without chants, shouts

What a concept. There was a health-care conversation held Tuesday evening, without chants and banners and tumult and shouting.

Sec. Kathleen Sebelius
Sec. Kathleen Sebelius

During what was billed as a "teletownhall" meeting, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, were able to field some aggressive questions but still calmly sell the notion that the nation needs substantive health care reform.  They also made it clear that the next few months will only mark the start.

One other point was constantly made during the hour-long session in which callers from Minnesota's 1st Congressional District asked questions of Walz, who was in Mankato, and Sebelius, who was in Washington.

"We cannot afford to do nothing," Walz repeatedly said.


Sebelius back-pedals on abandoning 'public option'
During the session, Sebelius seemed to back away from the headline-making comments she made on Sunday morning news shows when she suggested that the public-option plan that President Obama has been supporting might be supplanted by some sort of non-profit setup.

"Unfortunately, Sunday must have been a slow news day,'' Sebelius said. "I basically said what I've said for months. The key principles are giving customers a choice and creating competition that keeps costs down. … The president and I continue to believe that a public option is the best way to hold down costs."

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz

The format — in which the people and the pols were separated by a phone line — seemed to breathe life into the idea that substantive reform actually can happen. In this civil format — one person asking a question, another person answering it — we in the media couldn't write the easy story about people yelling at officials.

Certainly, there were hard questions. Angry ones, too.

A man identifying himself as Jonathan, from Rochester, expressed a question favored by the reform naysayers.

"Under this [public option] plan, will coverage be extended to people who are in the country illegally?"

But, unlike the town-hall forums where questions such as this are accompanied by angry chants, there was only a quick response from Sebelius.

"Both the House and Senate bills make it clear that there is no coverage for anyone not in the country legally," she said.

Another of the questions that usually is accompanied by jeers and hollers from the anti-reform crowd came from a man who identified himself as Dave of Fairmont.

"If this plan is so good, why not require members of Congress to use it?" he asked Walz. "Will you [Walz] pledge to use this plan?"

"Absolutely," said Walz, who went on to explain that as a member of the House he currently chooses a Blue Cross/Blue Shield family plan that costs him $356 a month, plus 25 percent of the costs of medications.

The best health plan he ever had, Walz said, was when he was on active duty as a member of the National Guard. Health insurance plans for those on active duty and veterans, he said, are only getting better.

Several times during the session, Walz bemoaned "the amount of disinformation" that's being labeled as fact. Even the Congressional Budget Office's study, which showed that reform as initially proposed would cost $10 trillion over the next 10 years, lacked context, Walz said.

"The Congressional Budget Office assumes that if we do nothing, there is no cost increase," Walz said. And that's not even close to an accurate picture of reality, both Walz and Sebelius said.

Without screams, a dose of reality
Absent the screaming, the two pols were able to bring the health care discussion back to reality.

Since 2000, Sebelius said, health care premiums for Minnesotans have gone up 90 percent.  Young women pay more than men of the same age, because insurance companies are trying to duck the costs of pregnancies. Those who have been sick often can't get insurance.

And, she said, one of the biggest problems is that under the current system, the cost of health insurance has gone so high that many small businesses no longer can afford to insure their employees.

"At one time, 63 percent of the mom-and-pop shops provided coverage," Sebelius said. "We're down to 40 percent now, and it's dropping every day. It's not because they don't want to cover their employees; they can't afford to. You either pay the mortgage or provide coverage."

Every day, Sebelius said, small-business owners lose talented employees, "because they go down the street to work someplace where insurance is provided."

The plight of small businesses, she said, is "a huge part of why reform is so necessary."

It should be noted that the edgy questions were not only from the right side of the spectrum. There were also those wondering about why the president and Congress were aiming so low.

Carl, from Eagle Lake, wondered why the president and Congress don't simplify everything and "allow everybody into the Medicare pool?"

"I know that idea," Sebelius said, suggesting that it had been discussed in the administration. "But no one [in the administration] wanted to dismantle the current employee-based system."

A woman from Caledonia wondered why there was such a big spot at the reform table for the insurance monopolies that have profited so mightily under the current system.

"We're trying to find a solution," said Walz. "I would not characterize that as giving in. If there are ways to improve the system, we want to hear it. It's not caving in, it's working to find solutions. But I'm not so naïve as to say that they [the insurance companies] don't want the same profits at the end of the day."

Sebelius made it clear that there WILL be reforms from the current system. Before this round of reform is complete, the industry no longer will be able to eliminate people with pre-existing conditions. Other cost-containments also will be created, she predicted.

Those goals sounded awfully modest, like someone trying to lower expectations.

But she also had a message for the naysayers in Congress.

"A few weeks ago, we had the 44th anniversary of Medicare,'' she said. "Medicare change the lives of people in this country forever. When you look back at that vote, Medicare only passed by 45 votes, which shows that change is always tough. But now, if you tried to get rid of it, Republicans and Democrats would be up in arms. Now, we have an opportunity to have that same security for all Americans."

And so the discussion went. There may have been people on phone lines across the 1st District screaming, "Socialism!" but for this hour, their voices could not be heard. 

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (8)

A major concern I have with the "tele-townhalls" is that I have found nothing that indicates that these are in any way compatible with relay services for the deaf/HOH. That would mean that those of us that relay on such services are shut out of any participation.

Let's wait and see how the youtube video turns out before making any judgments.

With this type of result, this format should spread like wildfire! Are you listening/observing other Democratic House members and Senators?

Then maybe the folks on the weasel can go back to breathlessly updating us on the latest case of preppy girls missing in exotic places or 24-hour speculation regarding whether or not hurricane Bill is going to wipe out Nova Scotia.

And Rubaugh can take another tropical vacation.

Nice to see Secretary Sebelius praise a health plan that is publicly funded but privately delivered, with completely free choice of providers and no nonsense about "networks." A socialized insurance plan that works extremely well and which has 2-3 percent administrative costs as compared to private insurance admin costs of 20-30 percent.

And no one yells "socialism" because Medicare has obviously not led to socialization of our entire system. (But think how inexpensive and 100 percent inclusive it would be, unlike the current plans on offer.)

Good capturing/editing and use of the dialogue. Still something about this format strikes me as a little disembodied almost too mpr ish (is that an adjective) or like a really really large church where 2-3 people make the decisions.
I do not know what the alternative is but would be interested in any ideas. Are there any numbers on how civil and respectful even if a bit pointed town halls have been? I guess I am getting at the notion of an open meeting law. Sometimes I think we are relying on small or insubstantial news evidence. Any lawyers/professors out there who can write about this in a clear manner?

I also think a article on the congressional progressive caucus is overdue. Perhaps centering on Mpls or St. Paul. It could be jazzed up if need be because another battle line is being drawn.

Congressman Waltz was on the radio this afternoon and I had the opportunity to listen. My perception was that he was thoughtful, very well informed and was willing to listen to those that might disagree with his positions.

His town hall in Mankato promises to offer some notable guests that will be both knowledgeable and credible about the topic and be able to offer some of their own
insights on reform.

The congressman will have former Senator Dave Durenburger, a rep from the chamber of commerce and someone representing the Mayo in attendance. With the goal to inform the audience with insightful information and perhaps to settle some of the more outrageous claims coming from some of these town halls.

Apparently he had invited Congressman Kline to join him at this venue and then for another one at a venue in Congressman Kline's district. Unfortunately Congressman Kline declined the invite.

Rachel Maddow reported this evening that oil and coal companies bussed in protestors of global warming legislation; all the "protestors" were employees or relatives of employees of those companies. So much for citizen participation.

The Walz/Sibelius teleconference saved the insurance companies a lot of money since they couldn't do their own bussing. Instead, people were able to ask and hear reasoned answers from their representative. Unfortunately, those of us in the Second Congressional District didn't have that opportunity with our rep. But then, we already know what he would say.