2009-09-02 / Front Page

Pallone: Anger over health care bill due to misconceptions

Opponents vocal at town hall meeting in Red Bank
BY KIMBERLY STEINBERG Staff Writer

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6th District) held his ground through three tumultuous town hall sessions on the administration's proposed health care overhaul last week, and in the end, he remained committed to the legislation he helped draft.

PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR staff Above: Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) talks with the media during a break in the town meeting held at Red Bank Middle School on Aug. 25. Below: Michael Craig of Middletown expresses his opinion. PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR staff Above: Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) talks with the media during a break in the town meeting held at Red Bank Middle School on Aug. 25. Below: Michael Craig of Middletown expresses his opinion. More than 1,500 people lined up outside the Red Bank Middle School to get their chance to speak to and hear from Pallone, chairman of the powerful Subcommittee on Health of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, about health care reform at the town hall meeting on Aug. 25.

After the last session, Pallone said that he did not feel frustrated that he was unable to sway the audience.

"A lot of people coming to town hall meetings have already formed their opinions of the bill," he said.

Pallone added that nothing he had heard that evening made him want to report back to Washington to change the bill.

"No, I have to be honest, so much of it is misconceptions," he said.

Three back-to-back sessions were held to accommodate the immense crowd that turned out. The first session began at 7 p.m. and the last started at approximately 10:30 p.m. Hundredsmore lined up outside but didn't make it in.

While some were in favor of the 1,017- page bill that Democrat Pallone helped to draft, it appeared that a great deal more in the crowd were opposed.

Tom Degman, of Monmouth Beach, earned a standing ovation from the crowd when he asked Pallone: "Will you remove your support from the bill if the majority of your constituents do not want it?"

"No, I'm very proud of the bill. I don't believe that the majority are opposed to this," Pallone responded, generating a hiss of boos and profanities throughout the crowd.

"We pride ourselves on stability and representative government here in Red Bank," Mayor Pasquale Menna said pointedly at the commencement of the meeting. That statement proved ironic.

Several people expressed that they thought the purpose of a town hall meeting was so Pallone could learn what his constituents want.

Several said they felt that Pallone was ignoring constituents' wishes in order to curry favor with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama,

Even more doubted the federal government's ability to deliver a public health care option that won't significantly raise taxes.

"This bill is not designed primarily to impact existing health programs like employeesponsored programs, Medicare, and Medicaid," said Pallone, unperturbed.

Laughter from the audience drowned him out.

"The bill is to address the problems of those who buy on the individual market, small group plans, or have no health insurance," Pallone continued.

"Why do politicians believe that they know more about health care than doctors, nurses or health care workers?" questioned a physician from Jackson.

"I do think we have a crisis, and that crisis is primarily for those people who have no insurance, or are on the individual market and are increasingly getting dropped, and for those in small group plans who are basically not going to be able to afford insurance. I think we need to provide them with insurance at an affordable rate," Pallone said.

He said costs to the health care system would be reduced under the bill.

"People will go to their doctors and not flood the [emergency room]. Every day more and more people become uninsured. If we don't do something, the numbers will only continue to grow," he said.

Pallone said that under the current health care system in New Jersey, those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a hard time getting insurance without spending astronomical sums of money.

The proposed bill recommends a health exchange under which, Pallone said, "There would be no difference in premiums; females won't have higher rates than males."

The government would offer a public option that would act like a large group plan, Pallone said, and in effect bring costs down as a result of competition between the public and private sectors.

"The public option is designed to bring down costs so that those who can't afford it now will be able to. There's not a lot of competition among the private companies, but if we add the public option, the rates will go down. We're trying to level the playing field," Pallone said.

A Middletown resident criticized this premise.

"If you take away a profit motive, quality suffers!" he exclaimed.

A Rumson resident said that although Pallone said that if someone chooses not to opt for the public option they can keep their employer provided health care, there's still no way he can be assured.

"I didn't mean to imply that your employer cannot change health plans," Pallone replied.

Pallone said the government would subsidize those whose income is just above the qualifying line for Medicaid.

"Eighty percent of the cost would be subsidized for those making $25,000 per year in Red Bank," Pallone said.

A sign held up by someone in the crowd read: "The problem with socialism is eventually you run out of other people's money."

Further elaborating on the cost of the bill, Pallone said: "An individual earning $280,000 and couples earning $350,000 or more would provide the 80 percent in taxes to pay for the program.

Supporters of the bill encouraged Pallone.

"Don't let the insurance lobby win this fight. Health care should be a basic human right and not a privilege," said a disabled woman.

Jan Bidwell, of Mahwah, described her plight, explaining that she spends $750 per month because of denied claims.

Bidwell told the crowd that her insurance company stands between her and her doctor.

"I have no choice because I have a pre-existing condition. I'm terrified of what's to come. The public option is incredibly important. I'm a single, disabled mother. If you have employee-based insurance, you could lose your job. It's been a horror show," she said.

"If I didn't have financial resources, I'd be dead. If I had to pay higher taxes to help those that are poor, I would," Bidwell later added.

Richard Wheeler, president of the New Jersey Association of Health Underwriters, Brielle, said that while Bidwell's situation is heart-wrenching, she is greatly misinformed.

"New Jersey is a guaranteed issue state. When information like that gets disseminated, the issues get confused. Most states are that way, but not New Jersey," Wheeler explained.

Tommy De Seno, a resident of Asbury Park, an attorney and editor for a conservative political blog, pointed out that the way the bill reads, instead of referring to pre-existing conditions, it refers to "health-status related factors" that include physical and mental disorders.

De Seno said that he believes Pallone doesn't fully understand the document's intricacies.

"The bill will allow insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. It's different language, but it means the exact same thing," he said.

De Seno presented Pallone with documents containing an analysis of his findings. Pallone promised to look into it and get back to him.

Tony Carro, Marlboro, a financial planner and employee of an insurance company, accused Pallone of having told a complete lie regarding pre-existing conditions affecting access to insurance.

"No one in New Jersey has his or her rates increased because of a pre-existing condition," he said. "If you're covered now, you'll be covered in a new plan. The insurance companies don't want you to wait until you get cancer. Who would buy a homeowners policy when their house is on fire?" asked Carro.

The crowd responded with a standing ovation. Pallone responded by saying that those individuals would pay a significant amount more.

The new bill includes incentives for hospitals to deny re-admitting the same patients, one member of the audience said.

"People aren't cars, we aren't machines. Things happen to the human body and people need to be readmitted."

Pallone said that hospitals would still have to take the patient back. The question is the rate of reimbursement.

"Certain guidelines would be set, but they'll [the hospitals] still have to take the patient. All this bill does is allow people to have choices. It's not forcing anybody to do anything," Pallone stated.

Pallone said that after the law is in effect for five years, private insurance companies would have to change their plans to match those offered in the exchange.

For example, if the private insurance company offered only catastrophic coverage, in five years they would have to also offer a basic package. Eventually every private insurerwould have to meet basic requirements, Pallone explained.

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