Overflow crowd turns out for health care forum

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 22, 2009


RESERVE — An overflow crowd of about 400 turned out in Reserve Monday to voice their questions and concerns to a panel of U.S. Cabinet members about proposed changes to the health care system in America.

The forum, held at the National Guard Readiness Center, was part of a series of town-hall meetings scheduled across the country that are designed to get feedback from residents in rural areas. Monday’s event, the only scheduled tour stop in Louisiana, attracted residents from all across the southeast region of the state. There were also a handful of protestors, who held signs and stood at the entrance of the building to protest the use of government funds to pay for abortions, which they said was included in President Barack Obama’s new healthcare plan.

The residents who spoke at the forum were also critical of the president’s healthcare overhaul, which includes a public insurance plan and promises lower medical costs and increased access.

The officials at the meeting — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki — fielded questions about the misuse of government money, unequal coverage under the proposed plan, the future of Medicare and a lack of access in rural areas. The four department heads also announced that millions of federal stimulus dollars would be coming to the state to help rural areas.

At a press conference before the forum, Sebelius said she was glad to be able to have the chance to address some of the “misinformation” she says is being circulated about the plan.

When asked about specific elements of the plan, Sebelius said the House health care reform bill and the Senate Health Committee bills do not define the benefit packages available under the revamped system. She said those decisions would be left up to a separate team of medical advisors.

“I think it would be wise to let science guide what the best health care package is,” Sebelius said.

The panel said the administration is looking to expand Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for the poor, which will initially be paid for by extra federal money. The plan also includes more opportunities for long-term care for seniors, especially since the current Medicare program is slated to be bankrupt by 2017.

Although the crowd seemed to react for almost all questions and answers, the loudest cheers and applause came in support of those who were critical of the Obama administration’s plan.

Robert McIntyre of St. John Parish, who said he spoke for 50 million aborted babies, asked if members of Congress would be covered by the proposed plans.

Sebelius said the proposals do not dismantle coverage plans, which would include the congressional plan, but give a choice to people who are under-insured or uninsured.

One woman asked the panel if there would be enough time for everyone to read over the new plan before it is signed. Sebelius said the bills are available for review at this very moment for anyone to read.

“There is no plan for mandated health care,” Sebelius said. “This is not a one size fits all system. Everyone would not be forced to do something they do not want to do.”

Amanda Smithson, a member of the Gulf Coast chapter of Save the Children, provided a solid example of the “access to health care struggle” for rural areas.

Smithson said that Monday morning a Franklinton preschooler was scheduled for surgery at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, but his parents had no way to get him there. She said A Save the Children coordinator arranged for transportation. “What can we do to fix this,” Smithson asked.

Sebelius said officials are working to improve access to hospitals and clinics and increase patient capacity. She said the government is working to increase access through telemedicine.

Vilsack suggested that the organization look into USDA grants to go toward a van for transporting patients.

Sebelius announced at the meeting that Louisiana is set to receive $25 million in federal money for community health centers. Vilsack said the USDA has committed $2.5 billion, which he said could create another $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for rural and underserved areas to get broadband Internet access. Broadband would allow for more access to telemedicine and distance learning.

Many people left the forum with no questions answered, but U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who was in attendance Monday, said she plans to continue the discussion with another forum in August.

“All of us have an obligation in America to think about the kind of health care system that we want, “Landrieu said “Are we happy with the way the system is now? Some people think parts of it are good, but most people think that it could be changed to be better.”