News & Politics

You. At a Town Hall Meeting. 5 Questions You Should Ask

Those raucous health-care town halls aren't over yet. That's where you come in.

If you lived nowhere but in front of your television set, you'd never know that a majority of the American people favor substantial health-care reforms -- and you'd certainly never know that most want to see a public health-care plan offered as part of a mix of options in any overhaul of the system.

In fact, were you a truly dedicated couch potato, you just might think that most of the “regular people” in this country just hate, hate the idea of health-care reform. And then you just might start thinking that maybe you should, too.

Thankfully, you, oh well-informed reader, are not that kind of tuber. No, you are ready for action, ready to show another face of regular America to the media — and to your fellow citizens. And what better place to do that than at a town-hall meeting dedicated to the topic of health-care reform?

Where You Come In

Just as opponents of reform have shown up in force at town-hall meetings conducted by members of Congress who support meaningful change, so, too, can you make your presence known at the town halls of those who oppose it. And when you do, awesome things can occur.

Look at what happened to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley -- the man who's been holding up the finalization of a health-care bill in the Senate Finance Committee while trying to scare his older constituents into thinking that reimbursing doctors for counseling patients on end-of-life care is really a ruse for "pulling the plug on Grandma."

Watch this video from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, starting at around 2:43, and you'll see one grandma who all but pulled the metaphorical plug on Grassley:

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The brilliance of this woman's question was that it was particular to Grassley, her senator,who had been using as his rationale for opposing the public option a study by the Lewin Group. Not only did the quesitoner helpfully point out that the Lewin Group is a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Health Care, one of the largest health insurance companies; she also calculated how much the United Health Care CEO made per hour: $102,000 by her math.

Luckily, Sen. Grassley has a week full of town hall meetings still ahead of him -- meetings at which you could be the star!

Town Halls Galore

Don't live in Iowa? There's still room for your powers of good, as congressional opponents (and supporters) of health-care reform are convening public meetings and teleconferences in a number of states, on dates ranging from now until the end of the year.

Tonight, for instance, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, will convene a meeting in Tallahassee. Later this week, alpha Dog Mike Ross of Arkansas will meet with constituents via teleconference, and next month, Pennsylvania's Kathy Dahlkemper, also of the Blue Dog Coalition, will meet concerned citizens in Emlenton.

And there's plenty more: citizens of Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state all have the opportunity to to discuss health-care reform with those who represent them in our nation's capital. Heck, in Wisconsin, Sen. James Sensenbrenner has a roster of town-hall appearances as jam-packed as a Grateful Dead tour schedule.

Although it's critical for progressives to have a presence at meetings presided over by senators and representatives who pose obstacles to health-care reform, don't forget those who support it: they need your love, and your smart questions. For instance, tonight Virginia's Jim Moran has a meeting scheduled, and it's anticipated that anti-reform enthusiasts will be out in force.

We've compiled the town-hall schedule information here (which wasn't hard to do, thanks to the handy-dandy listing that appears on the Web site of Glenn Beck's 912 Project). Although not every event listed is expressly dedicated to the topic of health-care reform, that's no reason not to bring it up.

Don't Go It Alone

To maximize your presence and point of view, gather a group about you -- your friends and family. Spread out in the room, and get your questions in early, so you can set the tone for the meeting.

Be strategic: If you have a senior citizen in your group, make arrangements with that person to politely ask a pointed question. (If you don't have a senior citizen in your group, recruit one if you can.) For instance, if your representative or senator has been advancing the lie that health-care reform is a scheme to kill old people, have that person ask where in the bill the representive finds that information. Ask for the page number, and which version of the bill. Or have that person discuss, in a personal way, the merits of having a discussion her doctor about end-of-life care.

Do you know a progressive member of the clergy? Would she or he be willing to join you to raise the moral concern of letting millions of people go without health care in the richest nation on earth? (Even better if the clergy member wears something symbolic of his ministry.)

Bring your personal stories. Do you or a member of your group have a heart-rending tale about something a heartless insurer did to a loved one, or how lack of coverage created a devastating outcome? Use that story as a lead-in to a question about how the kind of reform your representative says he or she supports would make things different.

For camera impact, have a few hand-crafted signs at the ready, with slogans like: "My Grandchildren Deserve Health Care" or "Dropped By My Insurance Company" (assuming that you were).

5 Basic Questions

Here are five fundamental questions that should illuminate the need for health-care reform to your town-hall audience:


1. Ask how the current proposals might make it easier to for you to get coverage

While the plight of the uninsured has taken center stage in the debate, there are also millions of Americans who are under-insured — who can’t afford adequate coverage. Under the proposals before Congress, many people who earn more than the cut-off for Medicaid eligibility but aren’t rich would be able to afford high quality insurance for the first time — tease that benefit out in your question.

All of the Democratic plans come with subsidies to help those at the lower end of the economic ladder get access to decent health care. In the House bill, individuals making less than 400 percent of the poverty line -- $43k per year and families earning under $88k -- will be eligible for subsidized coverage on a sliding scale. Those at the lowest income levels (but who earn too much to get Medicaid) will be required to pay no more than 1.5 percent of their total income for health coverage. Subsidies would also be available for co-pays -- also for people earning up to 400 percent of the poverty line.

Finally, many small businesses would be eligible for tax credits for insuring their employees. Some of the protesters may be surprised to learn that they’d have a lot to gain from the legislation.

Similarly, if you can’t afford decent health care because you are an independent contractor, part-time worker or are employed by a business that’s too small to purchase the kind of insurance the big boys can, tell them that up front and ask what the legislation could do to help.

2. Ask questions that expose the extent of America’s health-care rip-off.

Many of those protesting health reform labor under the belief that we have the best health care system in the world, or at least among the best. Note that the World Health Organization ranked the American health-care system 37th in the world, and that a Gallup poll of the citizens of 30 of the world’s richest countries found that Americans come in 18th in terms of their satisfaction with their care. Yet the U.S. spent an average in excess of $4,000 more per person on total health costs than those countries with better rankings and satisfaction rates.

Question: ‘How can anyone defend a status quo that’s such a rip-off?’

3. Ask questions that steer the conversation toward the everyday rip-offs of private insurance.

Had a policy canceled because you got sick and needed some potentially costly treatment? Found that treatments you thought were covered weren’t? Or maybe you’ve been hit with outrageous out-of-pocket expenses? Tell your Representative about your worst experiences with private insurance. Then ask how the proposed reforms would help you.

Among the best features of the bills in Congress are their insurance regulations, which include:
  • Insurance companies could no longer deny coverage to people because they've had health problems in the past, nor could they charge hugely different rates for different groups of people (premiums could only vary by age, geography, tobacco use and family size).
  • The House bill bans recissions -- the insurance industry's habitual practice of collecting premiums until someone gets sick, and then digging through their histories for an excuse to cancel coverage.
  • Insurers wouldn't be allowed to cancel an individual's coverage for reasons other than failing to pay the premium.
  • Insurers would no longer be permitted to impose annual or lifetime caps on benefits.
  • Insurers that sell insufficient, cheapo plans that leave people vulnerable to medical crises would be required to disclose that fact to their customers.
  • All insurers would be required to disclose how much of their spending is on health care and how much goes to costs like overhead, advertising, etc.

4. The costs of doing nothing: What will happen if Congress doesn't reform the system?

Opponents of reform have successfully focused the health care debate on the short-term costs to the federal government's bottom line, and that discussion obscures the potential impact that a meaningful realignment of the health care system would have on the economy as a whole.

Much of the public has been hoodwinked into believing that investments in America's national health care system will wind up costing individuals more than they will gain from the effort. Ask a question that focuses on the all-important issue: How can we possibly afford not to reform our health care system?

A good question might go along these lines: In 1960, the U.S. spent less than 5 percent of its economic output on health care, and all but a small number of Americans had access to care. Today, health-care spending represents around 17 percent of our economic output, and about 1 in 6 lack coverage. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if nothing changes, health spending will eat up 30 percent of America’s economy in 30 years. How will the proposed reforms change that equation? And what will happen to our economy if we don’t fix the system?

5. Happy with your coverage? Ask if anything would change.

Let’s say that around 25-30 percent of Americans are either uninsured, have been uninsured at some point in the past two years or are underinsured. That leaves 70-75 percent of the population that has some level of satisfaction with its care. Generally, that number includes many employees of larger corporations, government employees, the elderly, veterans and those eligible for Medicaid and parents of children who are enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

One of the central tactics of those opposed to reform is to scare this group into believing that their insurance coverage would change under the proposed reforms. But in reality, the Democrats have long embraced the principle (for better or worse) that people who are satisfied with their coverage wouldn’t be impacted by any of the reform proposals before Congress. So you might ask, simply: "If I’m happy with my coverage right now, how would all of this affect my plan?"


Get Your Ducks in a Row

Decide ahead of time who in your group will ask which question. Write your question on an index card for handy reference, and keep it simple. Don't use big words. Stay passionate, but polite. Don't get into shouting matches with your opponents.

Videotape It

Designate a member of your group to be your cameraman or camerawoman. If you don't have a camcorder, but do have a few bucks to spend, you can buy an inexpensive Flip video camera for less than $200. If all else fails, use your cell phone, or the video setting on your digital camera.

Additional Resources

At MoveOn.org, you can find a number of resources, including downloadable signs and sample questions. (Remember, though, hand-written signs are always preferable.) There's also this tip sheet (PDF) on how to make your message heard, and how to avoid conflict with right-wing protesters.

If you're headed to an event convened by a senator, check out Democracy for America's Whip Count tally, which will tell you exactly where your senator stands on health-care reform.

After you've posted your video on YouTube (or elsewhere), send us a link, at feedback@alternet.org

For more on what the proposed reforms might accomplish, see ”10 Awesome Things That Would Happen If Health Reform Passes”

For more on the costs of doing nothing, see ”How Corporate Media, Sellouts in Congress and Industry Bigs Have Hijacked the Health Care Debate”
 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Joshua Holland is a senior writer and editor for AlterNet.