2 Dialogues, 1 Thorny Idea

Health Care Reform The Effect On Maryland

Overflow Crowd At Cardin's Meeting Sticks Around To Educate Itself

August 13, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

HAGERSTOWN - -There were two different town hall meetings in Western Maryland on Wednesday afternoon, but Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin only made it to one of them.

That was his question-and-answer session in a packed Hagerstown auditorium. It included loud, red-faced rants by angry voters who wanted the Democratic lawmaker to know that they don't trust him or, for that matter, believe a word that he says.

But there was another civic gathering, too, which took place just outside and got little media attention.

It featured dozens of impromptu and often more substantive debates among ordinary citizens of all ages, drawn to the lush campus of Hagerstown Community College by a shared concern over Washington's drive to overhaul the nation's health care system. Hundreds of people, thrown together by chance as they stood in line, chose to stick around even after being told that the hall was filled to capacity - and have their own town hall.

"It's part entertainment, part civics," said Nina Kasniunas, 37, a political scientist at Goucher College in Baltimore, who was participating and observing.

Kasniunas said she decided to stay to help build a large crowd, because it's important to signal to the senator how salient an issue this is. At least 1,000 people were on hand, including the 450 or so who were admitted after waiting at least two hours on a relatively mild summer day.

Katherine McCann, 55, a retired nursing instructor from Middletown, said she came to show her support for President Barack Obama's overhaul plan. When she watched earlier town hall meetings on television, "I didn't hear my own voice," she said.

She didn't mind that there wasn't room for her inside Cardin's meeting, she said, "because this gentleman and I have talked and exchanged ideas," referring to a critic of the Democratic plan beside her in line.

The crowd, inside the college theater and out, reflected the surrounding area: Western Maryland is among the most conservative parts of the state. Opponents of the reform proposal outnumbered supporters. The event attracted national media attention, with at least two cable channels, MSNBC and CNN, carrying portions live.

Cardin took about 20 questions, the vast majority critical of either him or the Democratic plan. More than one person accused the senator of usurping authority not granted to Congress by the Constitution.

Punctuated by loud outbursts from opponents, who frequently tried to bully Cardin and sympathetic questioners into shortening their remarks, the critics made their case. Democratic efforts to fix the health care system, they said, will only make the situation worse - by raising taxes, rationing care and reducing the quality of medical services.

"Your government has lost the faith and trust of the American people," a woman shouted at the senator. "We are in debt up to our eyeballs and you are doing nothing more than putting more debt on us and our children and it's got to stop!"

Her remark was one of several that prompted a standing ovation. Many jumped to their feet when a man declared that legislation under consideration in Washington isn't about health care at all. "It's a bill about government control," he said. Another warned about a government takeover of the medical system.

"I certainly respect your right to express your views," said Cardin, who often had to struggle to be heard. "I've just come to a different conclusion."

In response to several questions about reducing the cost of medical malpractice lawsuits, Cardin said he was open to discussing the issue, but he declined to agree to a questioner's demand that he offer a tort-reform plan proposal of his own. The senator also assured the audience that he would not vote for a plan that adds to the federal budget deficit or increases the national debt.

Authorities had banned the use of megaphones, and - outside at least - there was little of the rowdy, carnival atmosphere that characterized Cardin's health-care town hall in Towson on Monday evening.

But, interviews showed, their opinions were just as passionate.

"This gives the opportunity for people to exchange ideas, to talk about what they think is right about the [overhaul proposals] and what is wrong," said Ron Mallonee, 63, a retiree from Walkersville. He thinks the health care system needs a tuneup, not a replacement, and favors tort reform.

The Rev. Timothy Leighton, a United Church of Christ pastor in Hagerstown, said he was really shocked when he arrived 90 minutes before the event and found he was too late to get in.

"I didn't expect to see that many people here," he said.

But Bill Ullrich, 81, a retired C&P Telephone technician from Westminster, said he couldn't stay away, once he heard that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland had used the word "un-American" to denounce the disruption of earlier town hall meetings.

"That really put me here," he explained.

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