Tempers flare at health care town halls - East Valley Tribune: News

Tempers flare at health care town halls

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Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 5:14 pm | Updated: 3:15 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Town hall debates on health care reform that devolve into screaming matches and, in some cases, physical altercations are causing many to question whether those in attendance are unruly mobs or patriots engaging in the democratic process.

Chandler health care talk draws overflow crowd

Town hall debates on health care reform that devolve into screaming matches and, in some cases, physical altercations are causing many to question whether those in attendance are unruly mobs or patriots engaging in the democratic process.

The meetings, hosted by lawmakers to facilitate discussion or shore up support for reform legislation in Congress, have focused attention away from the various competing plans championed by Democrats and President Barack Obama.

"Some people, I think, are anxious about what they feel is the increasing scope of government," said Vincent Waldron, an Arizona State University professor specializing in communication and conflict.

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Waldron said he thinks there's also lingering angst about the last election that left some people feeling angry.

"The sad thing about what's happening is that ... a kind of forum that ought to promote deliberation and a kind of informed democracy is in my view at least being sort of undermined by this kind of shouting match and this almost kind of a threat of violence that really certainly takes the steam out of any kind of effort to have a dialogue," Waldron said.

Politicians, pundits and interest groups on both sides of the debate are lobbing criticism and accusations about dirty tricks and obfuscation that have fueled anger at the meetings, some of which have been held in the East Valley. Those on the left accuse opponents of health care reform measures in Congress of spreading misinformation, saying the legislation will mandate abortions, free sex changes and euthanasia of the elderly, among other things.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., drew fire in July when she said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that Republicans had a better plan that would remove government control, ensure affordable access and "is pro-life because it will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government."

Perhaps more famously, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin recently wrote on her Facebook page about the president's so-called "death panels" that would decide people's fates.

Meanwhile, opponents of the current health care legislation accuse the White House of asking people to report suspicious e-mails that take negative positions on the legislation. They also lambaste critics who allege that protesters participating in the debates are being paid or planted by lobbyists and Republicans.

Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, whose districtincludes Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction and parts of Mesa and Chandler, referred to this at a town hall forum in Chandler on Monday that was attended by nearly 2,000.

"I want you to stand up, or by a show of hands, tell me who was paid to come to this event tonight," he said to light chuckles in the audience.

While Flake's meeting unfolded without much hostility, people on both sides of the debate ribbed and antagonized each other at times.

Gilbert resident Kelly Townsend, who criticized the legislation and President Barack Obama, was later singled out by another woman in the auditorium foyer who told her to go back and finish high school.

Later in the night, just as Brandan Spradling stood in the same foyer talking about how nice people were treating each other, an elderly woman walked by and interrupted her by calling her "a plant."

Spradling, who was in the middle of a sentence, appeared somewhat rattled by the accusation.

"Um ... but that wasn't very nice," she said with a stammer.

Flake, who later said he thought people behaved respectfully to one another, said people are so impassioned because health care touches everyone.

"Everyone has a story of a family member or a loved one who received care that they fear would not be available under a government-run plan," he said.

Suzanne Cavalier, a Chandler resident who was at Monday's forum and is opposed to the existing legislation, said the debate boils down to conflicting views about the role of the private sector and government.

"There's a lot of people out there that think the government can handle things and do it right," she said. "I'm not one of those. I believe in the free market. Now, do I think the health care system needs oversight? Oh, yes. I'm not saying there's not a role for the government. Of course there's a role for the government, but I just don't trust the government to do it for me and a lot of these people - they believe that the government can do it for them."

Some of the meetings have devolved into screaming matches and mild violence.

A meeting hosted by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., was interrupted with shouting that turned into some pushing between two participants.

Closer to home, The White Mountain Independent newspaper in Show Low reported that Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., walked out of a scheduled appearance with her constituents, saying she was "disappointed that the event was disrupted by a small but vocal group."

Kirkpatrick issued a press release on Tuesday saying that she would host a town hall conference via telephone with constituents on Aug. 18.

Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., was noncommittal when asked if Mitchell would host his own health care town hall.

Bozzi said Mitchell is on a congressional delegation fact-finding trip in Israel.

"Congressman Mitchell recently held a telephone town hallwith over 9,000 people from the Fifth Congressional District on it to discuss health insurance reform and hear what people are saying," he said. "We also launched an online survey on our Web site, mitchell.house.gov. It asks for some detailed opinions so we can really understand what peoples' feelings on health insurance reform are, and we've had over 5,000 people fill out that survey already."

"We're going to continue all of those types of outreach efforts when he returns," he added.

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