Everyone, it seems is trying to take the pulse of the electorate—Americans who, as the saying goes, vote with their feet and may well decide the fate of this effort to change the American way of health care. The pollsters, the wordsmiths, the PR firms, and the stealth groups have been way out in full force, trying to influence the hearts and minds of people who have turned out at town hall meetings. All this leaves reporters in a pickle, though: How do they know what people really think? We at Campaign Desk decided to use that age-old reporting tool—-the man-on-the-street interview—and set out to look at what men and women we met have to say about health reform. The series is archived here.
We have come to believe that the entire debate, its complexity and its nuances, has been taking place 30,000 feet above the heads of people in whose name the reform battle is being waged. Our interviews confirmed that observation. Of course, our results are not scientific, but we think they offer some pretty good clues to the way ordinary Americans are thinking. Too many people we met are not engaged, have heard lots of wrong information, and have no idea what reform means for them.
On Labor Day weekend, I journeyed to Scranton, Pa., hoping to catch a town hall meeting called by the progressive group Health Care for America Now (HCAN). HCAN had advertised a gathering on the steps of Scranton’s city hall. What better way to find out what Pennsylvanians were thinking, I figured. But at the appointed hour, not a soul from HCAN nor a single supporter showed up. Instead, there was Jack O’Rourke sitting alone on the steps, cane in hand and solar-shield glasses covering his eyes. O’Rourke was heading toward the Italian festival down the street. “I was originally for the plan,” he told me. But the more he learned about it, the more he disliked it. I asked why.
O’Rourke, age sixty-eight, has little income and depends on Medicare for his health needs. He was scared that Medicare would disappear. “I think it (Obama’s plan) is going to undermine the Medicare system,” he said. “There’s no way I can pay $9300 for another cataract operation.” He said he was watching a program about health care on cable and heard that they had tried reform in other states. He knew about the failure in Tennessee. “It’s a good predictor of what might happen with Medicare,” he explained.
O’Rourke said that if “they open health care to forty million more,” he might not get his other cataract removed. “Suppose they cut the payment in half,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it.” What else doesn’t he like? Abortion funding. “And I am against a panel of doctors telling you when you can live and die.”
After visiting with O’Rourke, I checked out La Festa, where opinions were as varied as the food—everything from bruschetta to Belgian waffles. Robert Marrara was dishing out porchetta at the Unico booth. He owns a small home improvement company and told me he was for reform, but “not this plan.”
“I like reform,” he said. “I don’t like government control of anything one hundred percent. I don’t like the way it’s being portrayed.” Marrara then admitted he really didn’t know what’s going on. He said he was getting only the information that was given out. “The only people explaining it are people on the right. The people on the left are followers. They don’t have the details,” he explained.
What exactly was bothering him about the Obama plan? He liked making everyone buy insurance, but it was the penalty for not buying that concerned him; he said “it would drive everyone into this public plan.” How would reform affect him personally? “I am very worried about the end-of-life committee,” Marrara said. “I have heard all the arguments, and nobody has convinced me it doesn’t exist. I’m one of those guys who quit the AARP—a month ago.”
His co-worker at the porchetta booth, David Bieri, saw things differently. Bieri, an elementary school principal, sees what happens when children don’t get medical care—like those who don’t get SCHIP because their parents are too embarrassed to apply, or the kid with an abscessed tooth. “I see more kids without insurance than ever before,” he told me. “Their parents have lost their jobs, and they don’t know who to turn to.”
Bieri, age forty-five, says “it burns me when I hear this is socialism. So when I hear people talk about socialism, I throw it back at them.” He says he points out that Medicare and Social Security are social insurance programs.