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Healthcare debate civil at tele-town meeting

Against the backdrop of a nation embroiled in an emotional, high-stakes debate on health care reform, the voices of Western North Carolina citizens seemed remarkably calm and polite during a telephone town hall meeting with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, last week.

Shuler reiterated his opposition to H.R. 3200, the House health care reform bill, to the deeply concerned callers throughout the “meeting,” which lasted more than an hour.

Callers had to state their questions before being allowed to directly talk to Shuler during the teleconference. Citizens who dialed in to listen to the conversation were sometimes met with busy signals due to the teleconference reaching full capacity.

A cautious attitude toward the meeting was evident, as Shuler’s office at first held back the telephone number to prevent organized political groups from infiltrating the meeting.

Participating citizens on both sides of the issue voiced wide-ranging concerns. Some worried about paying for illegal immigrants’ health care, covering abortions with public money, losing Medicare coverage, and adding millions of new patients without also adding doctors and health care facilities. Others asked how much of Shuler’s campaign contributions came from the health care industry, recommended looking to countries like Switzerland that are reportedly happy with their health care system, and expressed anxiety about the political process stymieing the passage of reform.

Carole Larvee, a Waynesville resident who listened in to the meeting, said as a retired nurse and volunteer for the Good Samaritan Clinic, she has personally experienced the plight of uninsured patients and hopes to see a solution soon.

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“I know Congressman Shuler wants to get the health care reform bill right, but again I see people suffering. I see a sense of urgency,” she said.

According to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, about 23 percent of the population — or 154,000 individuals in the 11th Congressional District — are uninsured.

Shuler has said that he wants to spend time crafting a bill, even if it takes longer than the end of this year.

He is pressing for a bill that will stress wellness, disease management, and prevention to drive down costs; does not place mandates on small businesses; does more to cut waste, fraud, and abuse; and adds a clause to ensure abortions are not funded with government money.

“We’re only going to get one shot at this,” said Shuler. “Let’s do this right.”

Shuler expressed much hope about driving down health care costs by promoting healthier lifestyles and possibly providing tax incentives to curb excessive smoking or drinking.

A few callers from Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Franklin were able to get through and ask questions, though many of the callers came from Asheville.

Susan from Waynesville said Congress could not reform health care without also tackling tort reform. But Shuler said doing that has not lowered costs in states like Texas and Alabama.

“There’s still gross negligence on behalf of everybody,” said Shuler.

Kathy from Hendersonville expressed her concern about pre-existing conditions.

“I have a daughter with a congenital heart defect and I’m very concerned about people being penalized by pre-existing conditions and just the high cost of health care [and] insurance premiums in general,” she said. “I don’t want to see this issue die because the perfect plan doesn’t evolve.”

Shuler responded, “We need to get a health care reform done ... but we have to do it right ... Could you imagine, the bill was presented to us and then three weeks later to actually vote on the piece of legislation? That’s very, very difficult.”

Ron from Maggie Valley asked for Shuler’s position on the center of comparative effectiveness, which has been characterized by opponents of the bill as a “death panel” that makes health decisions for the elderly.

Shuler laughed, and said, “Obviously there is no panel. You don’t have to worry.”

He added that he understands why citizens do not want the government to make health decisions for them.

“You don’t want the federal government doing it, and you certainly don’t want the insurance companies telling you,” he said. “We need to put it in the hands of qualified people who understand health care, and that’s our physicians, our nurses, and the people that are in our hospitals.”

Shuler plans to gather more input from his constituents with another tele-town hall meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 1.

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