As the crowd filed out of Wednesday's town hall meeting, Andrea Wimmer sat in her wheelchair under a tree, holding a neon-yellow sign that said, "When Obama rations out health care based on the 'worth' of a person, I'm screwed."
Two years ago, shortly after her high school graduation, Wimmer was in an auto accident that left her partly paralyzed and in need of weeks of hospitalization and therapy. Wimmer, now 20 and planning to enroll in classes at Hagerstown Community College, attended the town hall meeting along with her mother to show their opposition to the president's plan to overhaul health care.
"It sounds like people with chronic problems and older people are going to be left out of this health care bill," said her mother, Dori Thaxton, 36, of Hagerstown. "Universal health care doesn't work in other countries. I don't know how the government thinks it could work here."
Such concerns illustrate what President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress are up against in trying to reform health care. Though Wimmer benefits from at least two government programs - she receives Social Security payments and Medicaid assistance - she and her mother mistrust greater federal involvement in health care.
Most who gathered at Hagerstown Community College for Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's town hall meeting - his second on the contentious topic in three days - appeared adamantly opposed to the health care plan. Hundreds who were unable to get a seat in the auditorium milled about outside, carrying handmade signs with messages such as "My money, my choice" and "I'll keep my health care, money, religion and guns and you keep your change."
Shortly before the meeting started, the crowd sang "America the Beautiful," swaying from side to side and hoisting their signs high.
'Terrified of socialism'
As he stood in the summer heat, Sam Danner, 56, a retired Amtrak engineer from Hagerstown, said that Medicaid will not help pay for his lymphoma treatments because he has too much money in his savings account. He said he does not have private insurance but believes that universal health care would only worsen his problems.
"I'm terrified, terrified of socialism," Danner said. "Look where the country's going. They already have control of my life now. They say they want to help, but I don't trust the Republicans or the Democrats."
Standing by Wimmer's wheelchair, Thaxton said that her private insurance and Medicaid have covered nearly all of her daughter's bills.
Despite a positive experience with Medicaid, Thaxton said she worries that universal health care would be a burden on her family and the nation. She has not read the bill, but based on her research on the Internet, she said she believes that the plan would increase the national debt and inevitably lower the quality of care that elderly and disabled Americans receive.
"Every country that has socialized medicine winds up rationing care," said Thaxton as she pushed her daughter's wheelchair along a twisting path in a light rain. "People like her fall through the cracks."
A minority view
Wearing an Obama sticker on the pocket of his plaid shirt, William Whitten, 78, was among the minority in the crowd who had turned out in support of the bill.
Whitten, a military and government retiree, said he has wonderful benefits and believes that all Americans deserve a similar health plan.
After falling ill and receiving medical treatment while on a trip to Ireland a few years ago, the Middletown resident said he became convinced that the European system works well.
Although he disagreed with most of the audience in Hagerstown, Whitten said he appreciated the spirited debate.
"This is healthy. These town hall meetings - this is the American system," he said. "I think the Founding Fathers would be proud of what we're doing."